Though Sochi's Alpine events don't kick off until Sunday, American Bode Miller has already fired the opening salvo in his quest for a second Olympic gold medal by winning Thursday's first downhill training run.
The 36-year-old New Hampshire native and five-time Olympian proved he's the man to beat in Sunday's main event by taking an aggressive line down the challenging Rosa Khutor course, edging out Switzerland's Patrick Kueng by a scant 0.03 seconds.
So does this mean Miller is a shoe-in for gold in Sunday's downhill? Not quite.
Miller's been fast in training on Alpine Skiing's World Cup tour all season long, but those fast times haven't always translated into results on race day. During training on Kitzbuhel, Austria's famed Hahnenkamm downhill last month, Miller scorched the field by nearly a full second in the event's sole training run, only to fall short on race day and settle for third.
On paper, a series of critical mistakes before that course's crucial gliding section (where carrying speed is vital) cost Miller the Hahnenkamm title. But, ironically enough, Miller's perfection in training also contributed to his downfall. By taking a higher, tighter line through the course's twisty upper section, Miller essentially laid down a blueprint for success. Meaning all his competitors had to do was study video of his training run, then emulate his tactics on race day.
Therein lies the dilemma of training runs — does a skier give it everything they've got in the hopes of perfecting their line but risk revealing too much, or do they play their cards a bit closer to the vest? Because training runs don't serve as qualifications for top skiers (some national teams, including the U.S., use training runs to determine the fourth and final spot on the downhill team) or have any effect on overall time, most skiers are free to experiment. Over the next two days in Sochi (where there are a total of three training runs) you'll see a mix of skiing, with some racers laying down the gauntlet and others playing possum, tackling certain sections aggressively and others easily.
And then some, like 2013 downhill World Champ Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, will use training to see how hard they can push it and just what they can get away with. Svindal—the 2010 downhill silver medalist and arguably Miller's biggest rival for gold—used Thursday's opening training run to see how straight a line he could take through the course's tightly set gates and paid the consequences. He was forced to slow down in order to complete the run and finished well over a second behind Miller.
"I'm not surprised but I also think I can catch up a lot of that time. Because I made some mistakes," a cool-headed Svindal told reporters at the finish. If the big Norwegian discovers the fastest line down the course over the next two training runs, he'll be a major threat on Sunday.
Of course having a good training run is never a bad thing, and Miller—not one to hold back—will gain a lot of confidence from his performance on Thursday. But it also puts the American in the hot seat for Sunday, as now all eyes will be squarely on him to replicate the run when it counts. In other words, the pressure is on.
Fortunately, Miller—a 2010 Olympic gold medalist and a consummate big event skier—has been in positions like this before. In the meantime, watch for the Alpine veteran to continue laying it on the line, trimming time as he builds for Sunday's main event.