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New York Times

December 1, 2005

U.S. Men's Ski Team Ready for Trip Up the Downhill Course


BEAVER CREEK, Colo., Nov. 30 - It was one year ago in Beaver Creek, with the world's best skiers in town, that the United States men's ski team stunningly put its stamp on a World Cup season that had barely begun. In the downhill, the featured race of the Beaver Creek weekend, Bode Miller dashed down the feared Birds of Prey course to beat the field for first place. Right behind him, in second place, was his teammate Daron Rahlves.
The day before, Miller was second in the super-G. The previous weekend, when the World Cup visited Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, Miller won the downhill and the super-G. And three weeks before that, Miller won a giant slalom in Sölden, Austria.
The worldwide ski racing community had never known what to make of Miller. (And still does not, off the mountain.) The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Rahlves, meanwhile, is small for an elite downhiller, and while accomplished, had always presented something of a puzzle to European coaches. But after the 2004 Beaver Creek event, there was little room for conjecture on the quality of American men on the world ski racing stage.
It would turn out to be a historic season for the Americans, with Miller winning the first overall World Cup title for a United States skier in 22 years. Rahlves and Miller tied to win the final World Cup race of the season. Rahlves, like Miller, won two medals at the 2005 world championships.
The World Cup tour once again slides into Beaver Creek on Thursday, a bit under the radar even in an Olympic year. The super-G opens the competition Thursday with the downhill to follow Friday. The Americans have not gotten off to the same spectacular start they did a year ago. Miller was 18th and 22nd in the two races at Lake Louise last weekend. Miller was, however, second in the season-opening giant slalom in Solden, and Rahlves was third in the Lake Louise super-G.
But the Beaver Creek races should again be a signal point for the American men's team, an early measuring stick. It is the only time the World Cup will visit the United States, and it is likely that more Americans will pay notice to the results. With four World Cup races in four disciplines in four days, Beaver Creek is billed as a mini-Olympics.
And based on last year, Miller and Rahlves have a tough act to follow.
"I don't have to be told it's a big deal, I understand that," Rahlves said. "I don't have to get myself amped up. It's on home soil, which we're lucky to have, and they're important races on a great course.
"Who wouldn't want to do well here?"
Miller, usually eager to display his developed sense of contrariness, instead agreed.
"It is a favorite stop for me, I've always supported the four races in one place," he said. "It appeals to something I believe in, focusing on all four events. I like the downhill course, too. It fits Daron and I both. It's fairly technical down the face, and you have to have a firm grasp on your line. It has off-camber turns and big jumps. It allows you to get excited."
And, as if to prove his excitement, Miller used a word he saves for things he likes best, calling the Birds of Prey downhill, "pure."
As for the heightened expectations in a new year that is also an Olympic year, Miller said it was worth remembering that he has performed well under pressure before.
"That situation doesn't usually affect me," he said.
Rahlves said he accepted that the bar had been raised.
"But that's a good thing," he said. "It would be worse if no one cared."
Miller and Rahlves are not the only American men for whom top results are expected. There is a younger crew making noise, too. Steve Nyman, 23, finished 14th in the downhill at Lake Louise last week and was seventh in Tuesday's training runs at Beaver Creek. Nyman is a two-time national downhill champ.
Ted Ligety, 21, surprised everyone in Sölden with an eighth-place finish. His time in the second of two runs during the event was the fastest in the field.
The younger American skiers may have to get good fast. Rahlves has strongly suggested this is his last year of competitive ski racing. Miller constantly chafes under the spotlight of celebrity, which he described in this manner Tuesday: "At some point, it forces you to stop doing the things you want to do, to do the things you have to do."
The field will head into Friday's downhill without the benefit of the second training scheduled Wednesday at Beaver Creek.
Snowfall and high winds canceled Wednesday's qualifying runs for the downhill. The start list for Friday's race will now be determined by using the world rankings based on last year's results. The top 30 downhillers will start in reverse order.