Miller, US teammates look to secure Olympic spots

Steven Nyman of the United States, speeds down the slope in the alpine ski Men's World Cup Downhill race in Bormio, northern Italy, Tuesday Dec. 29, 2009. Steven Nyman of the United States, speeds down the slope in the alpine ski Men's World Cup Downhill race in Bormio, northern Italy, Tuesday Dec. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Alessandro Trovati)
By Andrew Dampf
AP Sports Writer / December 30, 2009

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BORMIO, Italy—Bode Miller is in the middle of a holiday break from the ski circuit, resting his sprained ankle, working on his conditioning and spending time with his daughter.

When he returns Jan. 6 for a slalom in Zagreb, Croatia, the two-time overall World Cup winner will have a month of racing to secure his starting spots for the U.S. team at the Vancouver Olympics.

At this point, Miller seems secure only for downhill, super-G and super-combi at the Feb. 12-28 games. Having skipped summer training as he considered retirement, the New Hampshire native hasn't posted a single result in giant slalom or slalom.

"Right now, qualification is still wide open. We've got a lot of slaloms left, (two) downhills, one super-G. A lot can happen," U.S. coach Sasha Rearick said at this week's downhill in Bormio, which Miller skipped.

While he still hasn't cracked the podium, Miller has registered five top-10 finishes this month, including one fourth- and two fifth-place showings. But in giant slalom and slalom, he hasn't qualified for a second run yet.

"Step-by-step he's going in the right direction," Rearick said. "I still think his fitness has got a ways to go. It's going to be good having this conditioning block. Being home at Christmas with his daughter is important for him and I totally support that. It's a good move for him to take care of his family, too."

Rearick said Miller has been a "positive" teammate, pointing out his interaction with the younger technical skiers. The former renegade has even ditched the personal motor home he has used to travel the circuit in Europe for the past several seasons.

"In Val d'Isere, he tried his own bus and he was going to go with the bus for the winter but it didn't work the way he wanted it to, so he's back in the hotels," Rearick said.

Miller's relative success in the speed events is impressive considering he had only one day of downhill training and one day of super-G practice before he began racing this season.

Steven Nyman also didn't train on snow this summer after undergoing surgery on both knees. A former downhill winner in Val Gardena, Nyman finished 16th in Bormio for his best finish of the season.

The result was all the more impressive since Nyman had never cracked the top 20 on the bump-filled Stelvio course, which is considered the most physically demanding on the circuit.

The resident of Sundance, Utah, collapsed in exhaustion upon crossing the finish line and had to stuff snow under his racing suit to keep his knees from swelling.

"I'm glad I'm standing on my feet right now. It was a good prep and confidence-builder for Wengen," Nyman said, referring to the next downhill in Switzerland, on the famed Lauberhorn course -- the circuit's longest.

While the rest of the downhill squad is heading home for a break before the Wengen races in mid-January, Nyman has chosen to remain in Europe and compete in some lower-tier Europa Cup races. The move is partly because he needs more training and partly because he doesn't want to put his knees through more trans-Atlantic flights than necessary.

With Miller likely to claim the top spot on the Olympic downhill squad, Nyman, Marco Sullivan, Andrew Weibrecht, Erik Fisher and Scott Macartney are fighting for the remaining positions.

The U.S. Ski Team gets four starting spots in each discipline at the Olympics.

"We're looking at it every race," Rearick said. "I've got a list right now."

The downhill squad took a hit when TJ Lanning had a season-ending crash in the opening race in November at Lake Louise, Alberta.

None of the Americans beside Miller has posted a top-10 result in downhill this season. That's a big change from a year ago, when a record five Americans finished in the top 10 in a single race -- Val Gardena.

Rearick addressed the situation at a team meeting in Bormio.

"One of the guys needs to step up as a leader," Rearick said, adding that Lanning's loss has affected the team's morale. "TJ brings a spark. He's not a vocal leader, but he's a competitive guy who's not satisfied (easily). I wouldn't say that these guys are satisfied, but we need that little, 'Hey, we can do better as a group. We can challenge each other better.'"

Only two more downhills remain before Vancouver -- the classic races in Wengen and Kitzbuehel, Austria.