KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — They can ski a little in Austria, too, right?
For the past three days, the Austrian ski team heard everybody anoint the USA's Bode Miller as the overwhelming favorite in the men's downhill — one of the marquee events of the Winter Olympics.
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Miller, the five-time Olympic medalist and longtime World Cup superstar, had wowed the ski world with near-perfect runs in winning two of the three training sessions.
And who won the other one? Matthias Mayer of Austria.
Then, Mayer went out Sunday, under cloudy skies after three days of sunny training days, and outskied Miller, who finished a surprising eighth, and everybody else in winning the gold medal with a time of 2 minutes, 6.23 seconds.
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It was a welcome triumph — and relief — in Austria, the ski-crazy country whose men's Olympic team was shockingly shut out — no medals at all — at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
Mayer, 23, has never won a World Cup race and his career best in a World Cup downhill is fifth. Even though he is considered a rising star, he continued a tradition of long-shot winners in the Olympic men's downhill, among them the USA's Tommy Moe (1992) and Frenchmen Jean-Luc Cretier (1998) and Antoine Deneriaz (2006).
"This is unbelievable," Mayer said. "I thought maybe in a few years I could dream of this sort of achievement. It was really cool and my family will be excited.
"I woke up this morning and I knew that I could win this race. I was smiling the whole day, all throughout inspection. It was my day today."
Mayer said he ran into Miller before the race.
"Bode told me that he was really nervous," he said, "but I was looking forward to the race, and I think that was an advantage."
Christof Innerhofer of Italy took the silver medal, just 0.06 seconds behind Mayer. Norway's Kjetil Jansrud, who had called Miller's final training run Saturday "epic," won the bronze.
Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal, the other favorite going into the race, finished fourth, and the USA's Travis Ganong, 25, of Squaw Valley, Calif., was fifth.
Ganong, who actually had the fastest times of anyone on the last two (of five) intervals, said he felt extra fresh after having a shortened training run Saturday, when he lost a ski at the top of the hill.
"I had a lot of energy today and I left it all out on the mountain, and it was awesome," Ganong said. "I'm pretty fired up for my first Olympic run."
As for Miller, he was expected to make a historic run Sunday but instead ran into trouble and became an also-ran on the fast, difficult course at the Rosa Khutor alpine center.
Miller, starting 15th, four spots after Mayer, was ahead of Mayer's intermediate times on the top of the course, skiing the second-fastest times of anyone on the top two intervals. But he slowed in the middle — he ranked seventh in the third interval and 23rd in the fourth.
He finished with a time of 2 minutes, 6.75 seconds, 0.52 seconds behind Mayer.
So Miller, 36, who was trying to become the oldest skier to win an Olympic alpine race, will have to wait and give it another try in the next race — the super-combined Friday.
"It's one of those days where it's hard to say where the time went," Miller said. "I skied pretty well. I was really aggressive and took a lot of risks. I made a couple of small mistakes but not really mistakes that cost you a lot of time. It's tough to be just missing it."
Miller said the difference between his run Sunday and his winning training runs was mostly about course conditions. Sunday's race was held under a cloudy sky, with warmer temperatures that softened the surface that had been turned into ice panels in previous days by course officials' decision before the training runs to inject the middle section with water. Also, the cloud layer made for a flat light condition that makes it harder for skiers to see the terrain.
"Training runs were bluebird — perfect visibility and hard snow," Miller said. "That's the perfect conditions to see who the best racer is, unfortunately. Today the visibility went away, the temperatures are warmer. The course breaks down a little bit.
"Not to make excuses, but when the visibility goes bad it affects me quite a bit. Guys who have a little bit different balance and initiation process in their turns, it just doesn't seem to faze them. Matthias is great that way. He doesn't really change if the visibility goes bad. That's a huge advantage today because I had to change a lot from the training runs to today just not being able to see the snow . . . I ski a bit more on the edge than most guys. I don't have as much tolerance for not being able to see the snow. I need to know where the snow is at the beginning of the turn, middle of the turn. I need to know where the little bumps are because I'm right on the edge.
"I'm disappointed I didn't get a medal, but I brought huge intensity and skied aggressive and I was pushing the lines. The conditions didn't favor me today, but that's the case a lot of the time in World Cup skiing and you just have to deal with it.
"It's tough when you have to judge yourself because the clock doesn't really seem to judge you fairly."
Ganong, who started seventh and watched Miller's run from the base of the hill, said he thought Miller lost critical time on a mistake on a turn just before the Bear's Brow jump — about two-thirds of the way down — that caused him to run into a gate panel.
"He had one mistake — a pretty critical turn that goes into a flat section," Ganong said. "If you lose your speed there, it's a losing battle . . . He kind of pinched the turn —turned a little too early — and stuck his head through the panel. I think that's where he lost his speed."
Svindal, asked about the role weather conditions played in the race, said, "I don't know if it changed anything during the race. This is an outside sport, so we are used to this."
U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick said he expects Miller to charge back in the next two men's events, the super-combined Friday and the super-G on Sunday. In Vancouver four years ago, Miller won a gold medal in the super-combined and a silver in the super-G, and also a bronze in the downhill.
"He got the nerves out of the way," Rearick said. "He's going to take his aggression to the next courses. That I'm confident of, very confident of."
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