Wednesday, February 15
I am a bit dinged up this morning after a big night at the USA house, which is actually a bar called the Irish Igloo that serves as the hospitality center for the duration of the Games. One of our boys finally cracked the podium yesterday, but it wasn't who you'd think. And it was definitely cause for celebration.
After the Downhill run of the Men's Combined, Bode Miller sat comfortably in the lead by a margin of 0.32 seconds. He was still using his new skis, but substantial edge damage from hitting a rock in Sunday's disappointing DH had his technicians scrambling to grind them down to make them race-ready. They seemed to work for him, and he skied a run that ironed out all of Sunday's kinks. Austrian Benny Raich loomed in second, and Ivica Kostelic of Croatia was still in the hunt.
As I mentioned Sunday, Sestriere Borgata, the site of the speed events, is at the bottom of a steep hill and the access is a half-mile muddy trail. The preferred footwear for these Winter Olympics appears to be Moon Boots, still alive and well in northern Italy. By the end of the DH run the entire venue was a mud bog, so we opted to take a chairlift up to town that was moving as slow as a dog with fleas. It did afford us a great view of the masses, trudging uphill through the muck.
The slalom runs didn't begin until 5 p.m., so everyone filtered back out into town and filled the restaurants and bars and spilled out into the streets. Not near as rowdy a crowd as for the DH, but a carnival nonetheless. I grabbed a quick plate of raclette cheese at the Swiss hospitality house with a vin chaud, and we bought some beers to take into the Slalom.
The security here at the Games is on display, though there's a certain Italian flavor to less cataclysmic acts of civil disobedience. In fact, I saw two Caribinieri buying beers at 10:30 a.m. before the DH at the market, then stuffing them into their pockets and smiling at us.
The Slalom course was lit up and shined with an icy glaze. We walked up to a vantage point about 400 meters above the finish line for the first run. While it isn't my favorite discipline, you can't help but be amazed by the speed and precision of these guys. They dice up that course with short little Ginsu skis, hammering the gates. It is impressive to watch up close.
I couldn't see the big-screens from where we were, but a roar from the crowd meant Bode was on course. He came into view with that distinctive back-seat style that has revolutionized ski racing, upper body smooth and still with his legs swinging wide and impossibly making every gate. Or so it seemed. He blazed by and at the finish another loud cheer meant he still had first place. A gold was inevitable at this point.
By the time we reached our seats, his name was no longer on the leaderboard. Benjamin Raich was in first, followed by Kostelic, and American Ted Ligety sitting in third. A half-hour had gone by with Bode in the lead, so what could have happened? Apparently one of the coaches (Austrian, I believe... go figure) demanded a video review of his run and he'd "straddled" a gate by an inch. At the speeds they go, and as many gates they have to make, it's not hard to do. But yet again, the FIS gods frowned on Miller and he was disqualified.
It would be an hour before the second course was set, so the crowd again dispersed into town and continued to party. We checked into the Igloo to warm up, get a bowl of Barilla pasta, and watch the replays on TV. Despite an air of disappointment from Bode's DQ, hopes in the USA house were still high for Ligety, who has been skiing very well this season and was due a big finish. Before I knew it, the second run was beginning and I figured this was as good a place as any to watch it from.
The top 30 go in reverse order, so with every racer the margin of lead increases over the last. A lot of racers were pushing it too hard, which never really works in slalom to make up time, and they got bucked off course. Tension built steadily in the bar, with racers like Resi Steigler and Ski Team alumnus Jeremy Nobis providing commentary for the rest of the crowd. Steve Nyman missed a gate and Austrian Michael Walchhofer took the lead. Ted jumped out of the starthouse with a smooth, confident style. He gained speed at every split, crossing the finish in first place. The place erupted. You always see the footage from a place like that during a televised race, and I have to admit, it was pretty cool to be in the middle of it. Everyone was hugging, high-fiving, and screaming at the top of their lungs.
But the Austrian favorite Raich was still to run, and about 15 gates in, he pushed too hard and went off course. The place went wild againthe kid from Park City had won gold at age 21.
Later that night, with the entire U.S. Ski Team in the house, Nobis said the word was that the Austrian coach was very worried about Ligety, and he told Raich that he had to really go for it if he wanted to win.
Ski Team photog Jonathan Selkowitz told me a few days ago that Ligety would be the one to watch during the Combined. "This summer at Portillo," he said, "everyone else was doing three, four runs of slalom and GS, and a couple of runs of downhill a day. But Ted was doing six to eight runs of each, every day. He's just a kid that still really loves to ski."
As the party ramped up around midnight, Ligety was posing for his hundredth photo op with ski team supporters, a bewildered grin on his face. Bode walked over, grabbed him around the shoulders, whispering something to him for a minute. He slapped him on the back with a smile and walked out the door. It was Ted's party, after all.