Erik Guay’s make or break effort to win his first Olympic medal in the downhill, the premier alpine race at the Sochi Olympics, is only a few hours away and a fine training run on Saturday seems to have improved his odds after a difficult week.
The trouble is that a resurgent Bode Miller is blowing away the pack, rattling all the frontrunners in what is being billed as a two-skier shootout – Miller, the American who won three medals in the 2010 Games in Vancouver, against Aksel Lund Svindal, the Norwegian who has nabbed five world cup victories so far this year.
Guay, Canada’s most highly decorated speed skier, placed a respectable eighth on his third and final downhill training run on Saturday, the day before the big medal event. His two earlier runs were much slower.
Training runs are curious beasts. Some skiers don’t try to kill themselves on such runs. For them, the goal to test their equipment, work on their aerodynamics and tweak their race-day strategy. Guay could be put in that category. With less than ideal snow conditions – soft at the top of the exceedingly long run and glare ice in the middle – he has been trying to find the ideal skis for the medal race (the set he tried on Friday aren’t going to make the cut).
In other words, Guay is no doubt capable of a better performance than eighth. His Saturday run was smooth. “My skiing has to be fun, fluid, easy,” he said. “I need to find this feeling again to be fast tomorrow.”
Other skiers treat training runs essentially as races. Miller could be put in that category, at least this week. He has won two of the three training runs at Sochi, making him the man to beat. At first, he said he would take it easy on the third test run. Then he decided he “wasn’t going to waste a chance to have fun on this course” and his ferocious competitive instincts took over.
He finished 0.66 seconds ahead of Svindal, whose status as gold medal favourite is suddenly in doubt, and precisely one second ahead of Italy’s Peter Fill, who is emerging as a dark horse contender.
Guay is coming into the Sochi Games in strong position after a season that has shown he can beat the best. In December, he won the world cup downhill Val Gardena, Italy. Later the same month in Bormio, Italy, he placed third – a result that handed him 21 world cup podiums, one more than Steve Podborski, a member of the “Crazy Canucks” in the 1970s and 1980s.
The glaring hole in his medal case is an Olympic medal. In the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, he placed fifth in two events. In Turin four years earlier, he missed bronze in the super-G by an agonizing one-tenth of a second.
Among the world’s top five or six downhill racers – Guay would be one of them – the difference between winning and losing can be measured in hundredths of a second. In other words, anything can happen on Sunday. Miller, a notorious, all-or-nothing risk taker, could blow up. The cool and calculating Svindal could have an off day. And Guay, the 32-year-old Canadian who is probably competing in his last Olympic downhill, could have the finest race of his career. There is no doubt he is motivated.