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Slow out Of the Gate
Tim Layden
February 20, 2006
Neither prerace relaxation nor new skis helped Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves in the downhill as the U.S. got off to a bad start
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February 20, 2006

Slow Out Of The Gate

Neither prerace relaxation nor new skis helped Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves in the downhill as the U.S. got off to a bad start

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In the last week of January, U.S. Alpine skier Bode Miller ducked away from the World Cup tour (and a year's worth of accumulated controversies) to play golf in Dubai with his younger brother, Chelone, a professional snowboarder who was recovering from a head injury suffered in a motorcycle accident in October. They played every day on surreal emerald-green patches in the desert. "Both our games sucked to death," says Chelone, "but it was fun, anyway. Dubai is a pretty sick place." � All week Chelone, 22, listened to his 28-year-old brother, the reigning World Cup overall champion and one of the most accomplished skiers in U.S. history, talk about the next phase of his life. It was as if skiing--and all the attention that has made Bode wealthy and which he has come to despise--were already in his rearview mirror. "I don't think he's going to be doing this s--- much longer," Chelone told SI on Feb. 9. "So I was telling him, 'Hey, if you want to get on with the rest of your life, that's cool. You might want to go out with a bang.'"

Daron Rahlves, Miller's U.S. teammate, has had similar thoughts all season, minus the mystery about his future. Rahlves, 32, will retire after the last tour stop in March, so he set his sights on winning major World Cup races and the Olympic downhill (the latter to atone for a 16th-place finish four years ago in Salt Lake City).

The Olympics have a reputation for forging memories from dreams, yet the Games can be as unsympathetic to one athlete as they can be kind to another. On Sunday in the Olympic downhill on an icy piste overlooking the village of Sestriere Borgata, 60 miles west of Turin, the last of the top skiers, France's Antoine Deneriaz, rolled from the number 30 start position to a gold medal, winning by the massive margin of .72 seconds over Austria's Michael Walchhofer.

Miller finished fifth, missing his third Olympic medal (he won silver in the combined downhill-slalom and the giant slalom in 2002) by .11 seconds. Rahlves ran a strangely passive 10th after changing skis barely two minutes before pushing out of the start house. "I thought he was tentative," said U.S. men's coach Phil McNichol. "Why he didn't charge hard, I just don't know."

The downhill shutout put Team USA in a hole in its pursuit of Alpine director Jesse Hunt's stated goal of eight medals between the men and women. But more chances to reach the podium came quickly: Miller was among the favorites in Tuesday's combined, the second of his five races; Lindsey Kildow and Julia Mancuso were threats in the women's downhill on Wednesday, though Kildow was questionable after suffering a severe hip contusion on Monday when she crashed during a training run. Rahlves has two other chances to medal--in the Super G this Saturday and the giant slalom on Feb. 20--but as he said after Sunday's race, "This downhill is the one I wanted."

Miller started his day in character, skipping the early-morning course inspection that is not mandatory but is considered vital by most racers. Miller slept until 9:45 a.m., prompting buzz that he was sleeping off yet another late night on the town. (To make the 9:30 inspection, he would've had to have been out of bed by 8.) Two sources told SI that Miller had dinner and drinks with his cousin (Chance Stith), his agent ( Lowell Taub) and his Nike rep (Curtis Graham), and that he was out until at least 10:30 p.m. McNichol said that he wasn't happy Miller missed inspection--"More of the same old thing," the coach said--but was convinced that Miller was not out partying excessively.

Moreover, Miller was confident despite a season in which he has made only one podium in the downhill. After two training runs at Borgata last week, Miller switched to a new pair of capped skis, in which the top sheet and sides of the skis are one seamless piece instead of the traditional layered configuration. He nailed the third run. "When he got back, he was psyched about the new design," says Jake Serino, a longtime buddy from Franconia, N.H., who drives Miller's RV on the World Cup circuit and at the Olympics.

Though he was getting pulled upright out of his aerodynamic tuck by wind, and the turns low on the course were choppy, Miller had a good enough run on Sunday that he was surprised to find himself no better than fourth when he reached the finish corral. (Deneriaz later bumped him to fifth.) Miller says he is accountable only to his own subjective criteria, but on this day he responded to the scoreboard's evaluation, throwing his head skyward. "It was so close," Miller said. "I felt like I skied in a way that would be reflected in a positive objective result. When there's a disconnect there, you feel a moment of confusion and a moment of disappointment. But what can you do?"

Rahlves felt no such disconnect. After laying down a killer first training run last Thursday, he skipped the second training day and instead watched video of his opponents that night. "Nobody's skiing the same line as me," he told his wife, Michelle. But little else went right after that. His Saturday training run was uneven, so later in the day he free-skied in the capped skis. He liked them and chose to wear them for Sunday's race. However, after Miller's fourth-place time in capped skis two runs before his trip, Rahlves, on the advice of his (and Miller's) technician, Thomas Buergler, hurriedly switched back to his regular skis. It may have given Rahlves, who said he was "nervous" on Sunday morning, too much to think about. "Coming down on race day," he said, "you can't have anything in your head."

At the bottom of the hill Rahlves faced a wall of reporters and said, in an unconvincing monotone, "I did what I could. I feel good about it." His blue eyes were lifeless, his shoulders slack. His performance was a huge disappointment, and it could not be spun into anything more. Asked about his upcoming races, Rahlves forced a smile and joked, "I might just take off. Call it."

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