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Original Issue

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

In the last weekof 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 withhis younger brother, Chelone, a professional snowboarder who was recoveringfrom a head injury suffered in a motorcycle accident in October. They playedevery day on surreal emerald-green patches in the desert. "Both our gamessucked to death," says Chelone, "but it was fun, anyway. Dubai is apretty sick place." ¶ All week Chelone, 22, listened to his 28-year-oldbrother, the reigning World Cup overall champion and one of the mostaccomplished skiers in U.S. history, talk about the next phase of his life. Itwas as if skiing--and all the attention that has made Bode wealthy and which hehas come to despise--were already in his rearview mirror. "I don't thinkhe'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 yourlife, 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 mysteryabout 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 LakeCity).

The Olympics havea reputation for forging memories from dreams, yet the Games can be asunsympathetic to one athlete as they can be kind to another. On Sunday in theOlympic 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 themassive margin of .72 seconds over Austria's Michael Walchhofer.

Miller finishedfifth, missing his third Olympic medal (he won silver in the combineddownhill-slalom and the giant slalom in 2002) by .11 seconds. Rahlves ran astrangely passive 10th after changing skis barely two minutes before pushingout of the start house. "I thought he was tentative," said U.S. men'scoach Phil McNichol. "Why he didn't charge hard, I just don'tknow."

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

Miller started hisday in character, skipping the early-morning course inspection that is notmandatory 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. (Tomake the 9:30 inspection, he would've had to have been out of bed by 8.) Twosources told SI that Miller had dinner and drinks with his cousin (ChanceStith), his agent (Lowell Taub) and his Nike rep (Curtis Graham), and that hewas out until at least 10:30 p.m. McNichol said that he wasn't happy Millermissed inspection--"More of the same old thing," the coach said--butwas convinced that Miller was not out partying excessively.

Moreover, Millerwas confident despite a season in which he has made only one podium in thedownhill. After two training runs at Borgata last week, Miller switched to anew pair of capped skis, in which the top sheet and sides of the skis are oneseamless piece instead of the traditional layered configuration. He nailed thethird 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 RVon the World Cup circuit and at the Olympics.

Though he wasgetting pulled upright out of his aerodynamic tuck by wind, and the turns lowon the course were choppy, Miller had a good enough run on Sunday that he wassurprised to find himself no better than fourth when he reached the finishcorral. (Deneriaz later bumped him to fifth.) Miller says he is accountableonly to his own subjective criteria, but on this day he responded to thescoreboard'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 apositive objective result. When there's a disconnect there, you feel a momentof confusion and a moment of disappointment. But what can you do?"

Rahlves felt nosuch disconnect. After laying down a killer first training run last Thursday,he skipped the second training day and instead watched video of his opponentsthat 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 wasuneven, so later in the day he free-skied in the capped skis. He liked them andchose to wear them for Sunday's race. However, after Miller's fourth-place timein capped skis two runs before his trip, Rahlves, on the advice of his (andMiller's) technician, Thomas Buergler, hurriedly switched back to his regularskis. It may have given Rahlves, who said he was "nervous" on Sundaymorning, too much to think about. "Coming down on race day," he said,"you can't have anything in your head."

At the bottom ofthe hill Rahlves faced a wall of reporters and said, in an unconvincingmonotone, "I did what I could. I feel good about it." His blue eyeswere 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."

A year agoDeneriaz had to call off his season when he tore his left ACL in anearly-January training crash, knocking him out the 2005 Alpine worldchampionships three weeks later. He returned to the World Cup circuit inNovember, but his best downhill finish before the Games had been a seventh onDec. 17 at Val Gardena, Italy (where he has two of his three World Cupwins).

One French skiinglegend thought it unlikely that the 29-year-old Deneriaz--or any of hiscountrymen--would medal in Turin. A month before the Games, 1968 Alpine triplegold medalist Jean-Claude Killy told a French magazine, "In Turin, like inSalt Lake in 2002, we will be depending on a few individuals to pull a rabbitout of a hat. Or a touch of French genius."

At 6'2 1/2",213 pounds, Deneriaz is known as a glider who excels on long, relatively easycourses, yet he skied masterly on the undulating Olympic track. On Saturday helaid down the fastest training run among the top 30 skiers, which left him inthe 30th start position on race day. Though that meant he had to ski on achewed-up course, it didn't matter. "He was pretty much untouchable,"said Miller.

After the race,with French flags flying on the hillside behind the finish stadium, Deneriazrecalled the day of his injury: "I told my coach, 'I'm not going to beworld champion, but I'll be Olympic champion.'"  



FAILED EXPERIMENT Using new skis that he had tested on only one of three training runs, Miller finished a disappointing fifth.