Two of America's greatest Alpine skiers — actually, two of the greatest Alpine skiers of all time — will square off in Friday's super-combined, an event that tests a racer's overall ability with the speed of downhill and the technical precision of slalom.
Bode Miller and Ted Ligety are the hot favorites going into the two-run event, and are collectively capable of producing the most exciting 1-2 finish for American men since identical twin brothers Phil and Steve Mahre raced to gold and silver in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympic slalom.
But despite Miller and Ligety's joint favorite status and their equally impressive race resumes, their skill set and approach couldn't be more diametrically opposed.
Miller, long labeled the bad boy of the U.S. Ski Team thanks to his blunt, sometimes brash persona and a racing style that favors risk over results, is the defending Olympic champ in the super-combined (not to mention the silver medalist from Salt Lake). He's also the only male skier currently competing to have won a World Cup race in all five of Alpine's varied disciplines. On the World Cup, Miller has stood atop the combined/super-combined podium six times.
But the 36-year old vet's overall prowess has waned in recent years, and we've seen him mature into more of a speed event skier than an all-arounder. Gone is the youthful quickness that once propelled him through slalom flushes, replaced by a savviness for speed that typically comes with age. That said, Miller — who kicked off his final Olympics with a dissapointing eighth place finish in the downhill — can certainly hold his own between slalom's tight breakaway gates. If he delivers a fast run in Friday's downhill leg (as his training runs would indicate), then he's more than capable of defending a lead in the slalom portion (just as he did in Vancouver).
Whereas Miller is on the way out, soft-spoken Ligety could be the breakout Alpine star of these Games. Considered one of the greatest giant slalom skiers in the sport's history, the Utah-native shed his one-trick pony skin last season by taking three gold medals at the World Championships — a feat that hadn't been done since Jean-Claude Killy went three-for-three in the 1968 Grenoble Olympic Games (back in the day, Alpine consisted of only three events and the Olympics doubled as the World Champs). Among Ligety's hat trick of victories was the super-combined title, a win that goes along nicely with his 2006 Olympic gold medal in that same event*.
Though Ligety has broadened his racing repertoire, the 29-year old star still heavily relies on his slalom skiing to get the job done in the super combined. Small by ski racing standards, he lacks the weight to keep up with the world's fastest downhillers, meaning he typically goes into the slalom portion of the event with time to makeup. It's a disadvantage that has often kept him off the super combined podium in World Cup competition, though he did collect a first and a second in the discipline's final two races with come from behind slalom performances before going into the Sochi Games. On Friday, chances are Ligety will be forced to ski more aggressively than Miller in the second run.
The biggest factor in determining the medals could be the weather. Balmy conditions have turned the once rock-hard downhill track into a slush pile with the same consistency of mashed potatoes. In other words, it's gone from challenging to—at least by Olympic standards—easy, meaning non speed specialists like Ligety could lose less time in the opening run and therefore have less ground to make up in the second.
"Right now, the downhill is so easy and so basic, there's nothing challenging about it really," Miller told reporters after finishing third in the super combined's final downhill training on Thursday. "There's no way to put any time on the slalom guys. Everyone just skis normal. Everyone's within a second-and-a-half or so."
If soft snow limits Miller's ability to put serious time into the slalom specialists during the downhill, look for the five-time Olympic medal winner to dust off his rusty slalom skills and go for broke as he battles Ligety in the second run.
Gold or no gold, it's sure to be an exciting showdown between two thrilling American ski racers.
*When Ligety won gold in 2006, the event was called the combined and featured one run of downhill followed by two runs of slalom.