February 9, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Jim Litke)—Back home, the face on the magazine covers and the name on everybody's lips belongs to Bode Miller. Over here, though, America's bad boy ski star is in danger of becoming yesterday's news.
Whether it was good timing or an optical illusion, the noonday sun clambered down from the sky for a few moments Thursday and perched on Daron Rahlves' broad shoulders as he walked slowly after a blistering downhill run toward the parking lot in the distance.
And either way, nature wasn't the only one anointing Miller's much lower-profile teammate as the man to beat.
"There is always a chance, but Daron Rahlves is the favorite, said Kjetil-Andre Aamodt, Norway's three-time Olympic gold medalist.
"The competitors I fear most, echoed France's Antoine Deneriaz, "are Daron Rahlves, the Austrians and Marco Buechel.
"It's a difficult course, full of changes, bumps and jumps, Buechel said, "so naturally, Daron loves it.
"Just look at the way Daron laid it down today, U.S. teammate Steve Nyman said. "Anybody who hadn't figured it out before should by now: Daron is definitely ready.
Rehearsals rarely turn into testimonials, but this one did with good reason.
Rahlves won the downhill the last time the sport's best were tested by the demanding Kandahar Banchetta slope two seasons ago, and if anything, he looked more confident and even more formidable in the first of three training runs before Sunday's opening Olympic Alpine event.
"This race comes down to me, Rahlves said. "I'm my biggest challenger.[pagebreak]That hardly sounded like a boast, since Rahlves had just raced down the course in 1 minute, 49.46 seconds, a stunning 1.2 seconds better than second-place finisher Michael Walchhofer of Germany, or roughly the length of a basketball court. Even though it was only practice, he averaged a day's best 67.8 mph and was No. 1 at every stage, including the gliding stretches where bigger, heavier opponents like Walchhofer and Miller were supposed to dominate.
"Dude, Rahlves explained through a wide smile, "I had my fast boots and fast skis out.
Miller, on the other hand, apparently pulled the slow gear out of his van. He finished almost 3 seconds and 2 mph slower than Rahlves, and was already out of his tuck and breezing along when he hit the finish line. Of course, it's anybody's guess whether Miller was studying the course, playing possum or just plain uninterested, since he made his walk to the parking lot without saying much.
"Not talking today, Miller said. "I will tomorrow.
There was a time when every Miller interview promised more entertainment than dread, but the needle is trending in the wrong direction. He's ripped Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, U.S. ski team bosses and boosters, his sponsors, his sport's drug-testing policies and reporters with such regularity that on the World Cup circuit, it's treated as little more than background noise.
"It's good for the sport because he's a straight-out guy, and it's important to have somebody like Bode in our circus, Buechel said. "But if everybody was like him, no, it would not be good.
While Miller's rivals remain grateful for the attention his comments have drawn, they're already looking past what he says and zeroing in on what he does. By that measure, Rahlves looks to be the much more dangerous U.S. threat.
Last winter, Miller won the first three races on the World Cup calendar, six by this juncture of the season, and went on to become the first U.S. skier in 22 years to win the overall title. This winter, he has exactly one win and six top three finishes.
Rahlves, by contrast, has three wins, all in the downhill, and six top three finishes overall. Small wonder he rolled into these games worrying opponents more with his sharp skis than Miller has with his loose lips.
Two days ago, the last time he sat still for an interview, Miller said, "I don't want to sound arrogant, but none of this bothers mme very much. I'm not caught by surprise. I would be lying if I said I had massive regrets about the things I've said.[pagebreak]Whether that extends to his recent performances remains to be seen. Miller was tough, inventive and fearless enough to revolutionize his sport and for much of the last 18 months, he's been the best skier on the planet. And every time he hurtles down the slope, you bet against him throwing down a once-in-a-lifetime performance at your own risk. No one understands that better than Miller's opponents.
But they also watched Rahlves preparing for his run at the top of Kandahar. Fit, fidgety and full of confidence, he likely knew something special was in the offing.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press