February 14, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Bob Baum)—American Bode Miller charged down the course with trademark abandon Tuesday to snatch the lead after the downhill portion of the Olympic combined. Favorite Benjamin Raich of Austria struggled to finish 13th and pinned his hopes on two evening runs of the slalom, one of his specialties.
The fastest combined time in all three runs wins the gold medal.
Miller, the 2002 Olympic silver medalist in the event and overall World Cup champion, was the fastest in 1 minute, 38.36 on a course slightly shortened from the one on which he finished a disappointing fifth in Sunday's downhill.
Miller's medal chances were bolstered by the withdrawal of reigning Olympic champion Kjetil Andre Aamodt. The 34-year-old Norwegian, the most successful Alpine skier in Olympic history, injured his left knee when he landed awkwardly on a jump Sunday, and he decided to rest until defending his super-G gold Saturday.
Miller picked up time through the middle portion of the course Tuesday to finish 32-hundredths of a second ahead of Didier Defago of Switzerland.
"There's not really much to say about it, Miller said as he ran past reporters at the end of the course. "I skied about the same as I did in the race the other day.
Miller was 32nd out of the gate after skipping the Monday training run that determined Tuesday's starting order.
He delivered the kind of nail-biting run that has made him among the world's best, making turns on one ski and soaring through jumps.
Miller found a tight line, swiping many of the red gates with his arms as he sped by. The line made for speed _ at one point he was clocked at 78 mph.
Within view of the finish line bleachers, Miller nailed the last jump in unusual style. In midair, rather than thrusting out his arms sideways for balance as he often does, he extended them behind his back, his poles sticking straight up. It was a nod to classic form _ the kind of form that often eludes Miller.[pagebreak]Re-entering his tuck, a few seconds later Miller had bested Defago's time.
Raich needs to make up 2.06 seconds to catch Miller. Downhill silver medalist Michael Walchhofer of Austria was fifth-fastest at 1:39.52, 1.16 seconds behind Miller.
"He's got room to breathe, U.S. men's coach Phil McNichol said. "This was a very important piece of the puzzle.
Both Miller and Walchhofer began their careers as slalom skiers before emphasizing speed events.
Among the other serious challengers were Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, just nine-tenths of a second behind the leader, and Rainer Schoenfelder of Austria, a slalom ace who was 1.66 seconds slower than Miller in the downhill.
Miller has skied in seven slaloms this season, only finishing two. His best result was eighth in Wengen, Switzerland, on Jan. 15. But he has won five World Cup slaloms, most recently last season on the same Sestriere hill where he was to race Tuesday night.
Raich, the bronze medalist in Salt Lake City, almost fell at one point.
"It wasn't perfect, of course, Raich said. "I made a big mistake in the middle part, so it wasn't good for me. But I've got to accept it and look forward. I have to fight.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press