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5 Burning Questions

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Bode Miller- 5 Burning Questions

When they light the flame, Miller, Rahlves, Bloom and Co. will represent America's best hopes since the Mahre/McKinney years. But not if the Austrians have anything to say about it. Either way, it's shaping up to be a Winter Olympics for the ages.

If you'd actually forgotten it was an Olympic year, you could be forgiven. The modern-era two-year interval, packed into the increasingly crowded landscape of our sporting culture, makes it harder to keep track. But if you like inspired performances and medal counting, it's time to pay attention. The U.S. alpine team might be the best it's ever been and certainly packs its biggest—if also most reluctant—star, Bode Miller. The freestylers are an even better bet. They might wind up with a bigger celebrity than Miller in mogul skier Jeremy Bloom, who plans to retire from skiing this year to try his luck as an NFL receiver. Keeping track of all the American skiing medals might take all your fingers and toes. But don't drop the remote: You don't want to miss a minute of the action.

1. Can Bode Miller win five medals? Is he even thinking about it?
Can he? Yes.
Will he? Doubtful. But he's the first guy to have a legitimate chance since Jean-Claude Killy. "It's not impossible, says U.S. men's head coach Phil McNichol. "But the stars would have to align. If he'd been on top of the podium that many times in a compressed period of time like (an Olympic fortnight), I'd say maybe. But he hasn't.

He almost did it last year, when he won four of alpine racing's five disciplines in a record-crushing 16 days. (That stretch lacked only a win in the fifth discipline, the combined—slalom and downhill.) Two giants who once held that record—Marc Girardelli and Pirmin Zurbriggen—made decent fodder for sweep talk but lacked Miller's knockout punch in every discipline heading into opening ceremonies. At his best, Miller is unmatchable in GS, combined and, to a lesser degree, slalom. Those in his league in downhill and super G might fill a gondola—the small kind.

What makes Miller an unsafe bet is the very unsafe way he skis. Last year, he finished only two of 16 slaloms. But betting the odds is to underestimate Miller's gift. Pressure management might just be the ultimate Olympic game, and Miller's native indifference toward expectations will serve him well. Guys like Hermann Maier are in it for the medal; Miller keeps it Zen—finding rewards in the process and the speed itself, not just in winning. That devil-may-care attitude got him to the top. It's also what will—or won't—get him to the bottom.[NEXT]2. Are the Austrians angry that last year's overall title went to an American? Will they come out gunning for Miller?
Look at it from the Austrian point of view: "They analyze the hell out of him, says McNichol. "And at the end of the day, here's a guy that golfs all summer. They're in the sports lab, training to within an inch of their lives. If you were out there packing your stones and engaging every expert to help you, and then you come to the first race and this carefree, charismatic cowboy beats you—severely—it's gotta sting. I mean, a tough day of training for Bode is not using a golf cart.

McNichol likes to tell a good story, and he's taking liberties here to present Miller through Austrian eyes. But if Miller is packing his stones the way Maier does—10 hours a day, six days a week under the supervision of a PhD—no witnesses have come forward. Not even the U.S. Ski Team staff knows what he really does for summer training. Wherever the truth lies, Miller has most people believing that his potential is far from tapped.

Remember also that Miller switched last year to Atomic skis—the dominant force in the speed events, where he had lagged. He waltzed in on trade secrets crafted over years of cooperation between Austria and Atomic, then won three of the first four speed events.

With Miller's rise has also come that of a squad Austria calls Team 4. (It sounds more menaci in German:Mannschaft Fier). Its mission: Win the World Cup overall. Austria denies that it was conceived as the anti-Bode, as many suggest. But every so often feuding erupts in the Austrian camp when a Team 4 generalist steals a start spot from a better-ranked specialist.

So, yeah: "Angry is about the right way to put it.

3. Are the venues worthy of an Olympic showdown?
After a preview of the San Sicario downhill/super G venue last year, the top women petitioned to race with the men on the Kandahar Banchetta course. The chief complaint, without getting technical, is that "there's nothing to make you poop your pants, as top American Lindsey Kildow puts it. Then again, most people don't remember that the Sarajevo downhill was a sleeper; they only remember Bill Johnson winning. For those who, like Kildow, have steeled their nerves on sinister World Cup tracks, it just means more competition from the talented but timid.

Organizers did toughen the downhill, but the super G is still a concern. So equipment and wax will play a big role, and times will be tight. Remember when Picabo Street pulled out downhill skis to win the '98 super G by .01 seconds?

"It could be exactly like that, says Kildow.

Every other venue is respectable. The men's downhill—where Daron Rahlves won in 2004—gave the Austrians fits at the Sestriere World Championships. And more good karma awaits the Americans on the Sestriere Colle technical venue. The Agnelli slalom hill, where Italy's Alberto Tomba won more than half his celebrated appearances, was most recently conquered by Miller, and teammate Sarah Schleper has come in second there twice.[NEXT]4. Which is a better bet for U.S. medals: freestyle or alpine?
The U.S. alpine team is in a position to better its 1984 record of five medals, but the freestylers are still likely to bring home the most hardware. The men's mogul team, in particular, is like an Austrian alpine team of multiple Maiers.

"I'd be surprised if they didn't sweep it, says former freestyle World Champion Trace Worthington, now a TV analyst. Only four Americans can compete, but who they are almost doesn't matter: Their bench could sweep. Not even NFL-bound Jeremy Bloom is a shoo-in for a spot. And on the aerials side, the men are stacked. World Cup overall champ Jeret Peterson is one of the very few in the world with a quint-twisting triple back flip in his bag. Done clean, it's unbeatable.

Medaling in all four events seems reasonable for U.S. freestyle. In alpine, the equivalent 10-for-10 performance would border on the miraculous. But where the '84 racers won five of only 18 possible medals, today there are 30. And on paper, the '06 squad has an edge. Daron Rahlves, a threat in three disciplines, and Miller, with potential in five, solidly outgun the combined force of the Mahre twins and Bill Johnson. And the '06 women may be even deeper than those of '84, if not quite as consistent and proven as McKinney et al.

It'll come down to the Debbie Armstrong factor. She'd never been on a GS podium before winning in '84. Someone will need to have a career day like that.

5. Is Hermann Maier the best skier ever?Or is he better than that?
By the numbers, Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark remains the über-idol of racing, with 86 World Cup wins. Maier was second with 51 after December's Beaver Creek races. It seems closer when you consider where each was at the age of 22. Stenmark was entering his fifth season on the World Cup; Maier was still toiling in obscurity as a bricklayer and ski instructor. He was an Austrian-system discard after Osgood-Schlatter disease—a growth affliction of the knees—sidelined him in his late teens. Not until age 24 did he bull his way onto a World Cup team that had never known a system outsider.

Of course, Maier, now 33, won't be remembered for the late start, but for the times he escaped an early demise. He's the Lazarus of skiing—maybe even of all sports, right next to Lance Armstrong. He burst onto the world stage upside down, 15 feet off the deck, opening his Nagano Olympics with a breathtaking downhill crash. "If I can still win a gold medal, I must be immortal, he said in the ensuing press conference. Pumped full of painkillers, he went on to win two golds. Then he nearly lost his lower leg in a 2001 motorcycle accident that destroyed bones, tissue and nerves. It should have been the end, but 521 days later he won again, and in 2004 he claimed his fourth overall title.

Pro- sports peers worldwide voted him the "comeback athlete of the year. It was a happy ending to a gruesome and long fight few of us understood until the release of his book, Hermann Maier: The Race of My Life (Velo Press, 2005), which chronicles the days of depression, painkiller addiction and paralysis scares followed by nights without sleep in sweat-soaked sheets.

One thing is for sure: If Maier leaves Torino with more gold medals, it'll be tough to leave him out of any discussion of the greatest athletes ever. It already is.

FEBRUARY 2006ance Armstrong. He burst onto the world stage upside down, 15 feet off the deck, opening his Nagano Olympics with a breathtaking downhill crash. "If I can still win a gold medal, I must be immortal, he said in the ensuing press conference. Pumped full of painkillers, he went on to win two golds. Then he nearly lost his lower leg in a 2001 motorcycle accident that destroyed bones, tissue and nerves. It should have been the end, but 521 days later he won again, and in 2004 he claimed his fourth overall title.

Pro- sports peers worldwide voted him the "comeback athlete of the year. It was a happy ending to a gruesome and long fight few of us understood until the release of his book, Hermann Maier: The Race of My Life (Velo Press, 2005), which chronicles the days of depression, painkiller addiction and paralysis scares followed by nights without sleep in sweat-soaked sheets.

One thing is for sure: If Maier leaves Torino with more gold medals, it'll be tough to leave him out of any discussion of the greatest athletes ever. It already is.

FEBRUARY 2006

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