KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Ask just about any Alpine ski racer or coach at the Olympics who is most likely to win the men’s downhill on Sunday, and two names pop up over and over: Bode Miller and Aksel Lund Svindal.
That’s based, in part, on the pair’s past accomplishments.
“They have so much experience,” Austrian Alpine director Hans Pum said, “and so many victories.”
It’s also based on current form, and what they showed during three training runs on the difficult, and at times dangerous, Rosa Khutor course leading up to the sport’s first race of the Sochi Games. Miller, a 36-year-old American, produced the fastest times both Thursday and Saturday. Svindal, a 31-year-old Norwegian, was third Friday, second Saturday.
“Bode is fast, that’s the bottom line,” Svindal said. “Right now he looks like the favorite. … But there is me, and I would say three, four other guys that could beat him. So we’ll see what happens.”
Miller and Svindal go way back, to their days on the lower-tier Europa Cup ski circuit more than a decade ago.
Stepping up to World Cup competition, they traded the overall title back and forth, with Miller winning in 2005 and 2008, and Svindal in 2007 and 2009.
Each won three medals, one of each color, at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where Miller raised his career haul to five, a record for a U.S. Alpine skier. In the downhill, which was won by Didier Defago of Switzerland, Svindal took silver, and Miller bronze.
“We come from two different ends of the spectrum, in terms of our approach to the sport. Aksel’s super-consistent. Rock solid. Doesn’t really take risks very often. The risk he takes is always calculated on what it’s going to take to win,” Miller said. “I more or less ski with the intent to push myself, so sometimes the risk is out of proportion with where the rewards come from.”
He has been dominating the upper part of the course this week, building up an advantage of more than a second over Svindal by the third interval Saturday, for example.
“That’s where he’s able to set himself apart,” American skier Steven Nyman said.
But Miller found some trouble navigating a lower section right before a spot known as the Bear Jump on Friday, when he was only 40th in that interval, the main reason he was sixth-fastest that day. So he set out Saturday to improve the way he addressed that particular part, and came away satisfied.
“You do want to test that out so you’re not trying it for the first time on race day,” Miller explained after finishing Saturday in 2 minutes, 6.09 seconds, 0.66 ahead of Svindal.
No one else was less than a second slower than Miller, whose run was described as “epic” by Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud, the sixth-fastest skier.
One factor that could weigh on some racers’ minds Sunday: 10 of Saturday’s 55 starters failed to finish.
The first guy on the hill, Slovenia’s Rok Perko, left blood on the snow from a broken nose. The third, France’s Brice Roger, tore ligaments in his right knee and broke a bone in that leg. Both will miss the race.
“If you’re not totally focused and paying attention,” Miller cautioned, “this course can kill you.”
He hasn’t won a race anywhere in more than two years, since a World Cup downhill in Beaver Creek in December 2011. But after sitting out all of last season to heal after left knee surgery, Miller has re-established himself as among the best in the world lately, including a pair of top-three finishes in speed races in Kitzbuehel, Austria, two weeks ago.
And now he can become the oldest Alpine gold medalist in Olympic history. Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway was 34 when he won the super-G at the 2006 Turin Games; no woman older than 32 has won an Alpine event.
“Generally, as you get older, nagging injuries and stuff can get in your way. But he seems super-healthy and happy, and it seems like his life and his skiing are going really well,” Canada’s Manuel Osborne-Paradis said about Miller. “You can see it on his actions on the hill.”
Svindal is still at the height of his powers, leading the World Cup downhill standings and second in the overall. In six downhills this season, he’s won two and never finished lower than fourth.
Jansrud described his teammate as “analytical,” and said Miller “is more like, ‘This is what I’m going to do, and I’m going to go for it.’”
“They have two different tactics, a different way of skiing,” Jansrud continued, before hitting on the most important point of all: “But they’re both fast.”
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