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February 22, 2010
After a somber start the Olympics were revitalized by the action on the slopes. Downhiller Bode Miller and snowboardcross ace Seth Wescott rode the wave
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February 22, 2010

The Spirit Is Back

After a somber start the Olympics were revitalized by the action on the slopes. Downhiller Bode Miller and snowboardcross ace Seth Wescott rode the wave

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Miller skied the top of the mountain spectacularly but slowed near the bottom. "He was a little less aerodynamic at the end," said U.S. racer Scott Macartney, in Whistler as a spectator. Miller's lead held for seven racers, until Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, the 2009 World Cup overall winner, beat him by .02 of a second. Two skiers later Didier Defago of Switzerland bested Svindal by .07. Svindal and Defago benefited from the sunlight that broke through and illuminated the lower course.

But Miller still made history. Before the Games he had been tied with seven other U.S. ski racers who had won two Olympic medals. Now he stands alone, with four more chances in Whistler to add to that total. "This is only the beginning," shouted Miller's agent, Lowell Taub, long after the race was finished. And, indeed, it might have been.

Under leaden skies at Cypress Mountain later that afternoon, Wescott, 33, set off pandemonium at The Rack, the bar he co-owns in his hometown of Carrabassett Valley, Maine, with his performance in the snowboardcross. The scintillating final was a gift for star-crossed Cypress Mountain, a venue so troubled that the Vancouver Organizing Committee referred to it as the "special child" of these Games. Three quarters of the way down the course in the final, Wescott was 20 yards behind Canada's Mike Robertson, who seemed assured of winning Canada's second gold medal, so long as he stayed on his board—not a sure thing on a distressed, serpentine course variously described by riders as "rutted," "soupy," "chewed-up," "chunky" and "tricky."

Just as the home crowd had allowed itself to believe the race was over, Wescott started closing. If his cool and panache made it seem as if he'd been there before, that was because he had: Wescott came from behind to win this event four years ago, in Turin. Now, rocketing out of the sixth turn, he halved Robertson's lead soaring over a pair of jumps. With the Canadian taking a safer line through the final turn, Wescott cut inside and took the lead, then made himself as aerodynamic as possible off the final jump and hung on for the win. After sharing an embrace with teammate Nate Holland, he was leveled by another, Graham Watanabe, whose joy was no doubt duplicated in that moment, in a tavern 2,000 miles away. "Given the circumstances," said a smiling Wescott, "après ski is probably going off at The Rack right now."

As treacherous as the conditions were at Cypress Mountain, they were worse in Whistler. Located at a perilously low altitude for reliable snow conditions, Whistler Blackcomb resort has a base elevation of just over 2,000 feet, and while its peak is at more than 7,000, the top of the Olympic men's downhill run is just 5,453 feet—2,421 feet lower than the course at the 2006 Games in Turin. In 1998, according to the Vancouver Sun, when the World Cup ski circuit's races at Whistler were canceled for the third consecutive year, international ski federation chief Guenther Hujara said, "We're never coming back here." They didn't, but five years later the Olympic Games were awarded to Vancouver, with ski events designated for Whistler.

The men's downhill had originally been scheduled for last Saturday before being postponed, and the women's combined was pushed back from Sunday to Thursday. Among those on the front lines of this battle with weather was women's race chief Bruce Holliday, an electrician who has spent much of the last 25 years volunteering as a race official. On Saturday night, as he pondered the monumental course preparation issues he was facing, Holliday rubbed his thin beard and said, "I'm not surprised. I know this hill."

Nearly every night heavy snow fell on the upper part of the men's and women's downhill courses (which are separate). But at the bottom, the ice was deteriorating in warm temperatures and heavy rains. "It's broken through in a lot of places, and instead of having a hard underlayer, it's almost like hollow underneath," said U.S. racer Ted Ligety. "For us it's almost like you would expect to get at U.S. Nationals [which traditionally take place in late March] or a spring series race."

Holliday and FIS technical delegate Greg Johnson of Colorado assigned more than 300 on-course volunteers to clear snow from the top and slowly slip down to the bottom on skis. "To compress the liquid," said Holliday. They did not bombard the surface with chemicals, which might have given a quick freeze but endangered the surface for later races.

While the technical team cursed the weather, Lindsey Vonn loved it. The disclosure of her Feb. 2 shin injury, while training in Austria, was sensational news. Vonn had been ordained the face of the Games long before they began (common practice, on the Michael Phelps model), as the two-time defending overall World Cup champion and winner of 31 World Cup races and a pair of 2009 world championships. She came to Whistler the prohibitive favorite in the long, speed events of downhill and Super G, a solid medal contender in combined and a threat in slalom.

Her injury was serious—she called it "excruciatingly painful" just to put on a ski boot. As it rained, she took to the task of getting better. Oliver Saringer, Vonn's team Red Bull physiotherapist (and close friend) turned the home theater in the four-bedroom condo where Vonn is living during the Games into a makeshift training room and treated the injury for several hours a day. "Without Oliver, I wouldn't have a chance to ski in the Olympics," said Vonn on Sunday. "And not just the Olympics. I've had a lot of injuries over the last few years, and he's kept me running."

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