U.S. in tough, but happy, spot of having choices
SESTRIERE, Italy -- The Austrians are usually the only team with the "problem" of too many good skiers and not enough spots. But the American team is proving: what's been typical in downhill racing, is not typical anymore.
Only Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller were assured of starting spots for the United States in Sunday's big show, leaving the remaining three American skiers, Steve Nyman, Scott Macartney and Marco Sullivan, to fight it out for the last two spots.
But on Friday, an 11th-place finish in the downhill training run proved to be as good as gold for the Olympic rookie Nyman, not because it was his best run ever, but because it earned him a spot in the race.
Now, Sullivan and Macartney, who finished 12th and 13, respectively, on Friday, are left to claw for the fourth and final spot in Saturday's final training run.
"It's a great relief just to attain that spot," Nyman said. "Tomorrow, I can play games and find speed elsewhere and not worry about racing and beating other people. In some sections, I skied very, very well and then, there's other sections I still need to pin down [Saturday]. It's a relief that pressure's not on me anymore."
Meanwhile, in the fresh air at the front of the pack, Miller sauntered his way down the course to finish seventh, while his teammate Rahlves had a more relaxing experience. After stomping the field in the first training run by over a second, Rahlves felt comfortable enough on the Kandahar Banchetta course to take Friday off and skip the training run.
A bold move? Yes. But this course suits him and he knows it. Not to mention the last time the world's best raced on this course two years ago, Rahlves licked them all. And they haven't forgotten it.
Austria's Hermann Maier made it clear he wasn't impressed.
"For sure, it's good," Maier said with a note of sarcasm. "And uh, maybe he's concentrating for the combined."
Everyone knows Rahlves is not racing the combined.
Others were more complimentary of the Californian's strategy.
Said Germany's Marco Buechel: "Can I be honest? This guy is p------ ice cubes. He marked his territory [Thursday] and he's just not showing up today. He's really cool, I have to say. If it works out, bravo."
Rahlves will be back Saturday for the final training run, where start numbers for Sunday's race will be determined for the first 30 in reverse order of finish. For most, it will be a chance for fine tuning and minor last-minute adjustments.
For Sullivan and Macartney, it will be a slide for life. One will get a shot at Olympic glory and the other, as U.S. ski coach Phil McNichol said, "will be riding the bummer train."
Some think it's unfair that not all competitors have to race Saturday. For the fortunate, they train, rest and save themselves for race day. But Sullivan and Macartney are happy to have the stress of being part of a great team.
"It's very fair," Sullivan said of the race-off situation. "In the World Cup standings, we're all pretty close and you can see today that we're at a high level in the field. I'm confident. Scott's obviously skiing great, all of us are skiing well. It's gonna be a race, but we'll both be giving it our all for sure. Whoever gets the spot, it's gonna be exciting."
Carrie Sheinberg, three-time national ski racing champion and top American finisher in the alpine slalom event at the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.