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Archive for Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ligety springs surprise on slopes

February 15, 2006

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— Young Ted Ligety gave the United States the Olympic gold medal that Bode Miller couldn't deliver Tuesday night, uncorking two dynamic slalom runs to win the men's combined and break the Americans' bad luck in Alpine skiing.

The 21-year-old skier from Park City, Utah, in his first Olympics, had a combined time of 3 minutes, 9.35 seconds for the downhill and two slalom runs. Ivica Kostelic of Croatia won the silver medal, 53-hundredths of a second behind the American at 3:09.88. Rainer Schoenfelder of Austria captured the bronze at 3:10.67.

Austrian favorite Benjamin Raich, the leader going into the final slalom run, skied off course, setting off a red-white-and-blue celebration at the finish area.

"It's incredible," Ligety said. "I can't believe it (happened) in combined because I'm not very good in downhill."

He said it would have been even better if Raich had finished.

"I would prefer to win standing up to him," Ligety said.

U.S. skiers Steven Nyman and Scott Macartney tackled Ligety, and the three teammates rolled in the snow together. They rose, and Ligety waved an American flag while he was propped on the others' shoulders.

Ted Ligety of the United States skis to the gold medal during his second slalom run in the men's combined. Ligety won the event Tuesday in Sestriere, Italy.

Ted Ligety of the United States skis to the gold medal during his second slalom run in the men's combined. Ligety won the event Tuesday in Sestriere, Italy.

"I'm not surprised he's on the podium," U.S. men's coach Phil McNichol said. "I'm a bit surprised he won gold."

It was only the fourth Olympic Alpine gold medal ever for U.S. men.

Ligety burst onto the world scene with two thirds and a second in this, his second World Cup season, and it seemed only a question of when, not if he would be a winner.

It couldn't have come at a better time for the frustrated Americans.

"It's a great day, especially with Bode skiing out," Macartney said. "Ted stepped up."

"You've just got to get in the starting gate and throw down whatever you've got," Ligety said.

What he had was two near-flawless slalom runs - the night's fastest at 43.84 seconds in his clinching second run and 44.09 seconds in the first, .01 slower than the best time of that leg.

On the final run, he attacked the steep part of the course at the start but gained most of his time with a sweep through the middle section, dashing between gates with a perfect aggressive rhythm.

Miller was disqualified for straddling a gate in the first run, just when he seemed to have built a commanding lead for his elusive first Olympic gold medal.

The disqualification gave the lead temporarily to Raich, who had trailed Miller by nearly a second.

The U.S. team decided not to protest.

"We looked at it enough times," said program director Jesse Hunt. "We're satisfied."

Miller was nonchalant.

"I've straddled probably more times than most people have finished the slalom," he told reporters at the bottom of the run.

Indeed, the often-reckless American failed to finish five of seven slaloms on the World Cup circuit this season.

"If it's clear, it's clear," Miller said.

That left U.S. hopes to Ligety, who was 32nd after the downhill, 3.06 seconds behind Miller, and third after the first slalom run, 86-hundredths of a second behind Raich.

"Teddy will save the day," McNichol said.

He did, and he picked up his more famous teammate in the process.

Like a cowboy riding a wild horse, Miller was a sharp contrast to the smooth, swivel-hipped style of Raich in a classic U.S.-Austrian showdown on a cloud-shrouded evening in the Italian Alps.

About three-quarters of the way through the first of two evening slalom runs - on the 42nd of 56 gates - Miller pinned a red gate with his left ski and the post popped up between his feet.

"I came down and the run felt fine," Miller said. "I had no idea I had straddled. ... I was in the recovery room already getting ready for the second run when I heard it on the radio and I looked at the replay."

By his own assessment, Miller was not as wild as he usually is.

"I wasn't so much conservative as just bad," he said.

Still, it might have been good enough had it not been for his mistake in the "flush," when the skier comes out of a straight line of flags and makes a sharp turn.

"It's a clear straddle," McNichol said.

The large scoreboard at the foot of the hill showed several replays after his run, but Miller's name remained atop the leaderboard for nearly a half-hour. That's when an orange asterisk went up beside his name, and seconds later "1. Bode Miller" was gone completely, replaced at the top with Raich.

Miller had seemed poised to become the first U.S. Alpine skier to win three Olympic medals. His time of 2 minutes, 23.68 seconds through the downhill and one slalom run was 97-hundredths of a second better than Raich's - not an insurmountable lead, but one he could easily have held.

All of a sudden, those numbers were meaningless.

Miller was the 2002 Olympic silver medalist in the event and the reigning World Cup circuit champion. Raich came into the competition the No. 1-ranked combined skier in the world and won a bronze at Salt Lake City four years ago.

A few hours earlier, Miller had charged down the downhill course with trademark abandon to take the lead while Raich struggled to finish 13th in that portion of the combined, 2:06 behind Miller.

Raich is one of the world's best slalom racers, though, and he sliced Miller's lead by more than half with an aggressive run, always in control down the icy, steep course on the edge of the village of Sestriere.

Fourteen of the 56 skiers either didn't finish the first slalom run or were disqualified. Among them were medal contenders Aksel Lund Svindal and Lasse Kjus of Norway, downhill silver medalist Michael Walchhofer and Didier Defago of Switzerland, who was second in the downhill portion of the combined.

Miller had the fastest downhill in 1 minute, 38.36 on a course slightly shortened from the one on which he finished a disappointing fifth in Sunday's downhill medal race.

Miller picked up time through the middle portion of the course Tuesday to finish 32-hundredths of a second ahead of Defago. He was 32nd out of the gate after skipping the Monday training run that determined Tuesday's starting order.

He delivered the kind of nail-biting run that has made him among the world's best, making turns on one ski and soaring through jumps.

Miller found a tight line, swiping many of the red gates with his arms as he sped by. The line made for speed - at one point he was clocked at 78 mph.

Within view of the finish line bleachers, Miller nailed the last jump in unusual style. In midair, rather than thrusting out his arms sideways for balance as he often does, he extended them behind his back, his poles sticking straight up.

It was classic form that for once didn't elude Miller. The gold medal still did, though.

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