Feb 08 2014, 10:43 AM EST -
By BILL PENNINGTON
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - Rok Perko of Slovenia, the first racer in the final men’s downhill training run Saturday, crashed. The second racer, the American Marco Sullivan, lost control of his skis and, in the words of teammate Bode Miller, “almost killed himself.”
Four of the next 10 racers did not finish, and another four pulled up to survive safely. With an impenetrable sheen of ice coating the treacherous steeps and jumps of the downhill course at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort, it was an especially perilous day to be an Olympic ski racer.
Then out of the start house came Miller, who admitted later that, given the conditions, his primary goal for the day was self-preservation. But as Miller roared through the beginning of the course, reaching speeds of 90 mph, he decided he was enjoying himself too much to scale back his ambition.
Miller charged from turn to turn, tucked through the flats and soared over the jumps. Where others fell or turned their skis sideways to scrub speed in self-defense, Miller threw his hands forward to quicken the pace.
When he crossed the finish line, he was 0.66 seconds faster than the field. Aksel Lund Svindal, who came to Russia as the race favorite, was second and humbly conceded that Miller was the one to beat in the downhill competition Sunday.
“Is Bode the favorite?” Svindal said. “I think so. He’s been the best skier on the mountain. Me and maybe three other guys can beat him tomorrow. But we’ll see.”
If he were to claim the gold medal in the downhill, the 36-year-old Miller would be the oldest man to win an Olympic Alpine event. Kjetil Andre Aamodt was 34 when he won the super-G at the 2006 Turin Olympics.
On Saturday, Miller was not discussing his chances Sunday, but the persistent smile on his face spoke volumes about his confidence.
“I’d be mad at myself if I wasted an opportunity to have fun on this hill,” he said.
And he had a theory about the demanding 2.2-mile course.
“I don’t think you’re safer going slower,” he said. “You’re more likely to get hurt. It’s so fast and the snow is so hard, you have to be aggressive with it.”
Miller added a chilling comment: “If you’re not paying attention, this course will kill you.”
Miller was not kidding when he talked about how Sullivan had barely saved himself from disaster.
“He almost killed himself,” Miller said. “If that crash doesn’t go just the way it went, he goes flying through the B-nets going 75 miles an hour straight into the trees. It looks innocuous there, but that is one of the worst spill zones on the course. This course has teeth everywhere.”
There are two kinds of netting used at the edges of racecourses to guard racers from obstacles alongside the trail. B-netting is generally used in sections that do not appear obviously dangerous. It is not usually reinforced, and while it would provide some protection, it might not impede a racer at top speed. A second kind of barrier is called A-netting and is used near the riskiest sections of the course. It is fortified to block racers from hitting ski towers, rocks or other dangerous mountain elements.
As Sullivan said later, “I was heading straight toward the B-nets, and you can blow through those pretty quickly. Luckily, I made the save.”
With his skis splitting and his body tilting backward, Sullivan skillfully and athletically righted himself and brought his skis together in time to avoid the nets and remain on course, although he slowed considerably and then coasted the rest of the way to the finish.
“The point is that you’ve got to watch yourself at all times,” he said with a snicker.
Svindal, the defending world champion in the downhill, who came second in the 2010 Olympic downhill, said the course was relentlessly challenging.
“But we’re supposed to be the best skiers in the world, so we’re supposed to be able to handle it,” Svindal said. "It will identify the best. It’s difficult not just for its mix of speeds and jumps but because of how rattly it is into the jumps. You can’t get comfortable.
“It’s a constant pull and tug - be aggressive, be smart, be aggressive, be smart. You’re like that for two minutes.”
“It should be a great race to watch tomorrow,” he said.