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Kitzbuehel: It's D-day for U.S. Olympic hopefuls with decisive downhill on tap

Kitzbuehel: It’s D-day for U.S. Olympic hopefuls with decisive downhill on tap{mosimage}KITZBUEHEL, Austria – The 50,000 fans – give or take 20,000 – who will flock to the Hahnenkamm downhill Saturday may not care much. But a heated battle for the final U.S. downhill spots in Torino will play out on the slopes at the head of this hopping ski resort town.

Daron Rahlves, a favorite for Saturday’s downhill and three-time winner in that discipline this season, has clinched one of the four U.S. downhill allotments for the Olympic Winter Games. Defending World Cup overall titlist Bode Miller has too, entering Saturday ranked sixth in downhill.

From there, the speed team drops off. Scott Macartney ranks 28th, Steven Nyman 30th, Marco Sullivan 41st and Justin Johnson 50th. U.S. men’s head coach Phil McNichol and staff have some tough decisions. Saturday’s downhill will be the final race that factors into the speed team Olympic selections. The tech guys have Tuesday’s Schladming night slalom as a last-ditch resume booster, before the U.S. alpine team headed to Torino is announced Wednesday during the Snowsport Industries America trade show in Las Vegas.

Friday’s super G shed little light on the situation. Rahlves was the only American in the top 30, and Miller skied out early. Macartney was 33rd, Sullivan 38th, Nyman 42nd, Dane Spencer 44th and Johnson 47th.

‘Today was a complete beating … just painfully disappointing’ McNichol said. ‘It definitely was not what we were anticipating. The guys were ready but, except for ‘D’ [Rahlves], they just didn’t get it done. And ‘D’ skied damn good … and Bode was 10th at the first split, about 30 seconds into it, but his approach on this one gate was too aggressive and then it looked like he lost an edge.’

At Wengen last weekend, Sullivan started well back in the pack but finished 16th in downhill. He’s endured major reconstructive knee surgery and an equipment overhaul with Salomon. Saturday’s downhill is crucial for the Salt Lake 2002 competitor to nab his second Olympic berth.

‘It’s huge for me’ Sullivan said after placing 38th in the super G. ‘If I could pick one race, definitely the most important up to this point is tomorrow. The track was in really good shape until the snow, so it should hold up for all the racers. Again I’ll be running outside the top 30, so I just gotta punch it in there and be among the top two or three Americans and hope I can get a spot for Torino.’

Saturday, Sullivan, with a huge contingent of Lake Tahoe buddies in attendance, put up a decent run but couldn’t muster enough speed to crack the top 30 and score points.

‘It was gnarly’ he said. ‘After about the top 30, there was no sun on the course, so it was flat light. With the new snow, the course deteriorated pretty quick. There’s some big holes. I had to kind of scrap the entire way down. It was kind of a struggle. It was possible to punch into the top 30, but not many guys did. I definitely had some big mistakes, just a rough ride.’

Macartney, racing with bib No. 2, was even closer to the top 30, finishing 1.94 seconds behind race winner Hermann Maier, in 33rd place. Nyman skied into 42nd, Dane Spencer 44th and Johnson 47th.

‘I felt really good today in warm-up and everything. That first corridor up there, I just came inside and went way low there. I was just making up too much on the next couple, just got going too straight, not using my head’ Johnson said. ‘It’s such a close race, a tight race, and one mistake is big trouble here.’

Johnson needs a big score Saturday for any shot at Torino. He said he’ll race the downhill on the boots he wore at the end of last season. ‘In the training run I felt really good [on those boots], but just didn’t feel confident to switch to them again today, which I should have. But the skis and everything was great, and I’m going to go back to my old boots tomorrow and just give her hell, see what happens.’

He’ll need at least a top 20 in downhill for Torino consideration. A top 15, perhaps even a top 10, would not offer any guarantees, but would radically improve his shot.

‘I’ve been feeling good all year. It’s just been one thing after another – a couple of bad breaks, pressing a little too much’ Johnson said. ‘I’ve been skiing better than I ever have, in top 10 in a lot of the training runs. I’ve just got to relax.

‘Really nothing left to lose now – tomorrow’s the last day, qualifier for the Olympics. There’s nothing really to worry about, just do what I can do. I’ve been worried about a lot of other people all year, so I’m just going to worry about myself and try to go fast.’

Sullivan said he’d work out on the bike, grab some dinner with his Tahoe contingent and gear up for a must-have Satuday.

‘I’ll go get ready for the toughest downhill in the world tomorrow’ he said. ‘I can’t really get too nervous – it is what it is.’

GUAY STRUGGLES: Canadian Erik Guay entered Friday ranked second in the super G standings. His 13th-place effort Friday wasn’t too shabby for the ‘old’ Guay, but he was disappointed, considering the ‘new’ Guay had secured two second-place finished in super G this season.

‘Coming over the Hausberg there I was a little too direct, I got bumped really hard and lost my line a little bit’ he said, referring to the tricky Hausbergkante section just past the halfway point of the course. ‘Then I lost quite a bit on the last jump there, where I was off the back and had the skis up, landing gear way out … I definitely caught a lot of wind there. On a course where it’s just hundredths, it cost me quite a bit.’

None of the Canadians who will start in Saturday’s downhill at Kitzbuehel have ever raced the legendary course before. Because of a snowstorm, they had only one training run this week.

‘Another training run would have helped me quite a bit’ Guay said. ‘Going into tomorrow, it’s going to be really challenging with only one run ever on this course. We’re going to try to ski it as aggressive as we can without taking too much risk, and hopefully get some more points. Work on it for next year.’

Friday, Guay’s teammates chipped in some top-30 results, with Francois Bourque 19th, John Kucera 25th and Manuel Osborne-Paradis 49th.

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