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Miller chases high life

U.S. ski racer Bode Miller takes to the sky while placing third during a World Cup downhill in Switzerland two weeks ago. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
U.S. ski racer Bode Miller takes to the sky while placing third during a World Cup downhill in Switzerland two weeks ago. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Associated Press

BORMIO, Italy – A month ago, the Alpine Skiing World Championships seemed destined to become the Bode Miller Show.

Now it appears an ensemble cast of talent will take turns in the spotlight when the 16-day event begins today.

Opening the World Cup season with four victories in five races – one in giant slalom, two in downhill and another in super-G – Miller seemed unbeatable. He won the slalom in Sestriere, Italy, to capture four disciplines in the shortest span, 16 days.

The idea of Miller making a clean sweep of the six events at the world championships did not sound outrageous.

“For the moment, I’m just happy to have achieved something which was important to me since I started to race all specialties,” Miller said after his remarkable start. “I knew I could do it, and I’m happy to prove that I was right.”

But now, without a victory since Dec. 13, Miller looks a bit less formidable.

Skiers from seven nations have won men’s World Cup races this season; 12 countries have top-three finishes. Austrians Michael Walchhofer and Benjamin Raich – within 100 points of Miller in the overall standings – as well as Miller’s American teammate Daron Rahlves and Canadian Thomas Grandi have all shown they’re capable of winning.

Italians Giorgio Rocca and Massimiliano Blardone will look to shine on home snow, while Norwegian veterans Lasse Kjus and Kjetil Andre Aamodt are possible spoilers.

Miller never lacks for confidence, but he simply hasn’t been the same since winning the season’s first two downhills. He’s returned to the podium once in Alpine skiing’s banner event, a third-place finish in Wengen.

“Bode enters the season at a naturally strong level,” U.S. men’s coach Phil McNichol said. “Others catch up later in the season as they evolve, spend more time training, sort out their equipment. Because Bode races everything, he doesn’t have much time to train or test equipment.”

Walchhofer – who, as defending world champion, won’t need to fight for a downhill berth on the deep Austrian squad – is a gold medal favorite after winning the long and grueling Lauberhorn race. The World Cup discipline leader was also runner-up behind teammate Johann Grugger in a dress rehearsal here a month ago. Grugger, also victorious in Chamonix, France, is another contender.

“It was great to win my first downhill on this course. I hope it’s a sign,” Grugger said.

Miller, meanwhile, is as excited as anybody.

“It’s a classic,” Miller said of the notorious Stelvio slope. “It’s tough physically and technically. That’s what makes a great downhill. It’s going to be an awesome worlds because it’s anybody’s race. You never know who’s going to win here.”

Once a dominant gate specialist, Miller is struggling in slalom after switching ski brands and focusing more heavily on the speed events. He has finished one slalom in seven attempts this season.

“It depends on the conditions and the course,” Miller said. “Slalom and GS can be frustrating because there are two runs. You can win the first run, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t finish the second. I’m just trying to make it to the finish every day. It’s easy to make a mistake and crash. If I make it to the finish, I’m pretty happy.”

Raich, Rocca and the rising Manfred Pranger – fresh off tough slalom wins in Kitzbuehel and Schladming – are heavy favorites.

Also in the hunt are Rainer Schoenfelder, Finland’s Kalle Palander and defending champ Ivica Kostelic, returning to form following knee surgery.

Miller’s surest shot at a medal probably is in the giant slalom, where he’s the defending world champion. He’s won twice and finished in the top three in all but two GS races this season.

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