KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — In the past three Olympic Winter Games, an American skier has won a medal in every men’s combined, a race that combines the speed of downhill and the technical skills of slalom. At each of those Games, the U.S. medal winner had to make a big comeback in the slalom.
In 2002, Bode Miller overcame an almost disastrous downhill to take the silver medal. Then in 2006, Ted Ligety made up a 2.20-second deficit in the downhill to win the gold medal.
Four years later, when the combined had morphed into the super combined (one downhill run and one slalom run, as opposed to the previous format of one downhill and two slalom runs), Miller skied the third fastest slalom run to keep the gold in U.S. hands.
Neither man could launch a comeback today in the Sochi 2014 Olympic super combined. Rather than attacking the slalom, Miller and Ligety held back. Miller could not let it go on a tough slalom set and was unable to overcome a big mistake in the downhill. He finished sixth.
Ligety skied “definitely way too conservatively” in slalom and ended up 12th.
In his first Winter Games, Jared Goldberg was all smiles in 11th place. Andrew Weibrecht had a good slalom run going but hooked a tip and did not finish.
The medals went to quick-footed Sandro Viletta (Switzerland), who has a fear of flying but not when he’s on snow. Ivica Kostelic (Croatia) earned his fourth Olympic medal with the silver, and speed skier Christof Innerhofer (Italy) rounded out the podium.
For the U.S. skiers, the day began on a tough note and never improved. All four men drew bibs in the 20s. On a day when the temperatures were headed to the mid-50s, even in the mountains, the course deteriorated rapidly. After his downhill run, Goldberg called it water skiing.
Miller was fast at the top in the downhill but again made a mistake coming out of the Meadows (same place he lost time in Sunday’s downhill). Still, he had the best downhill run for the Americans, finishing 12th, 1.43 off the leader. Ligety was 1.93 back.
The two Americans were in similar positions when they won their Olympic gold medals in 2006 and 2010. In 2006, Ligety — as a relative unknown — finished 2.20 back in downhill. But back then, the combined included two runs of slalom, which gave him time to gain what he had lost. In 2010, Miller was only 0.76 seconds back in the downhill, then skied the third fastest slalom to take the win.
“Me and slalom have a tough relationship; I love it and I hate it,” Miller said after the downhill.
Today, he hated it. On a tough course set by Kostelic’s father, Ante, Miller couldn’t find his rhythm.
“In order for Bode to ski athletically and dynamically, he has to have a rhythm with it,” explained head coach Sasha Rearick. “He needed to have a better downhill run to be in the game today.”
“The way Ante set that thing, there was a lot of differences in distance [between gates] so there’s no rhythm,” added Miller. “One turn has to be a little longer, and the next one’s really short, and then he sends you across the fall line.
“I don’t have enough confidence in my slalom to go out and just pin it. I tried anyway ‘cause that’s what I had to do to be on the podium. I just made a lot of little errors.”
Despite being almost two seconds out after the downhill, Ligety still liked his medal chances. But as the sun baked the slalom course, he was concerned that the snow wouldn’t hold up. He was also concerned about the tough course set, which featured a rare four-gate flush — dubbed a royal flush — into a cranker turn onto the final pitch. On the TV monitor near the start, Ligety watched one guy get bucked off course, and he knew slalom ace Alexis Pinterault hadn’t finished either.
“I just respected the course too much,” Ligety said. “I didn’t think it would take a run that was 100 percent in order to come down and get a medal.”
Ivica Kostelic defended his father’s course setting, saying that it’s “the way the courses used to look like before measuring was introduced into the world cup.”
“There is no accidental winner [on my father’s courses],” said the Croatian. “You need to be a good skier to ski smart in a course like that.”
Miller agreed. He won his 2010 super combined gold medal on an Ante-set slalom. He just had too many bobbles today.
“As a team, we skied defensive,” said Rearick. “We’re looking forward to moving forward and attacking the super-G and giant slalom.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.