February 13, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Andrew Dampf)—We've seen this before. While American Bode Miller gets another crack at Olympic gold and Austrian Benjamin Raich is the favorite in the men's Alpine combined, a Norwegian stands in their way.
He's Aksel Lund Svindal, a young contender in the tradition of great all-around Norwegian skiers.
And no event better shows off Svindal's varied talents than Tuesday's combined, which pairs the high-speed downhill and the turn-heavy slalom.
All-around skill is a point of national pride.
As a child, Svindal looked up at posters of Norwegian greats Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Lasse Kjus in his room. Now he's competing alongside them.
"We sure have a good tradition and I do all events like they do, said Svindal, 23, who led Monday's downhill training session by more than a second. "They are kind of role models. I can still learn stuff from them.
Aamodt is the defending champion in the combined _ one of his record seven Olympic Alpine medals _ and Kjus won the title in 1994.
Both are scheduled to compete, Aamodt despite a tender left knee, in what is almost certainly their last Olympics.
Though not considered a glamour event, the combined is perhaps the best test of a skier's all-around ability.
It pairs two completely different races: one run of downhill in the afternoon and two legs of slalom under the lights. The winner is determined by adding the times from the three runs together, but the double dose of slalom favors specialists in that discipline.
It won't be easy for Svindal.[pagebreak]Raich can be dominantly consistent; he was the bronze medalist four years ago in Salt Lake City and the gold medalist at last season's world championships. Miller was the silver medalist in 2002.
"There are a lot of skiers who are very strong. I think Miller is very strong, Svindal is very strong, Raich said, also mentioning compatriot Michael Walchhofer and Italian Giorgio Rocca. Another contender is Austria's Rainer Schoenfelder.
Miller's biggest challenge will be simply to finish _ his wild style has let him finish only two of seven slalom races this season.
At last season's world championships, Miller only lasted 15 seconds into the downhill run of the combined when one of his skis came loose after landing a jump. That launched him into a memorable one-ski show the rest of the way.
"If Bode puts some good slalom runs together, he's always a threat for sure, said fellow American Ted Ligety, a slalom specialist who has an outside shot at a medal if he doesn't lose too much time in downhill. "That's kind of been his trouble this year in putting some good slalom runs together.
Rocca won five consecutive slalom races earlier this season and took bronze in combined at the worlds last season.
And then there's Svindal, one of the tallest skiers on the World Cup circuit at 6-foot-5. He took the silver in the combined at the 2005 world championships and led the overall World Cup standings earlier this season before breaking a rib.
"Svindal is very strong and I thought in the autumn he would win the overall, Raich said. "He's very strong and it's just a question of time when he will win the overall, I think.
Like Aamodt and Kjus, Svindal is one of the rare skiers who excels in all five disciplines: slalom, giant slalom, super-G, downhill and combined.
Including his silver in combined, Svindal recorded four top-10 finishes at last season's world championships. In the fifth event, he was 12th in slalom.
Svindal has a high standard to follow at the Olympics.
Aamodt's seven Olympic medals are a record for an Alpine skier, and Kjus has won five, but Svindal doesn't seem to feel any pressure to win one of his own. This is his first Olympics, but he figures far from his last.
"I'm for sure going to ski eight more years, so this one and two more for sure, maybe three more, you never know, he said. "Hopefully I'll be better and better every year.
Copyrigght © 2006 The Associated Press