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Kostelic, Miller, Ligety chase medals in combined skiing

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Bode Miller is the defending Olympic champion in the super-combined. American teammate Ted Ligety was the 2006 Olympic gold medalist, is the reigning world champion and is tied for this season’s World Cup lead in the event.

So one might have expected them to merit a mention when U.S. men’s head coach Sasha Rearick began discussing whom he expects to perform well at the Sochi Games in the super-combined, which adds the times of one downhill run in the morning and one slalom run in the afternoon.

Croatia’s Ivica Kostelic, whose father Ante set the slalom course, “is going to be strong,” Rearick began. Then he mentioned another Croatian, Natko Zrncic-Dim.

The next name off Rearick’s lips after Thursday’s last official training session on the downhill course was France’s Thomas Mermillod-Blondin, a guy he noted “hasn’t been on the podium yet really recently, but (is) skiing really well.” Then came another Frenchman, Alexis Pinturault, who “of course” must be included, Rearick said.

Adding to the growing list, Rearick continued: “Some of the downhill guys that are light on their feet, quick on their feet, that can make decent slalom turns — the course setting suits them.” That describes racers such as Carlo Janka of Croatia, and Peter Fill of Italy.

When it was pointed out that he’d yet to make mention of his own top two entrants, Miller and Ligety, Rearick replied, “I’m telling you who the competition is,” and then skied off to go oversee slalom practice on a nearby hill.

With temperatures topping 50 degrees this week, today’s downhill start was pushed up to 10 a.m., one hour earlier than originally scheduled, in a bid to get going before sunshine softens the snow. The slalom is scheduled for 5 hours later.

Miller was third fastest in downhill training Thursday, trailing Ondrej Bank of the Czech Republic and Dominik Paris of Italy. Downhill gold medalist Matthias Mayer was fourth, with Kostelic — the silver medalist behind Ligety and Miller at the last two Olympics — sixth. Ligety was 11th, Pinturault was 12th, and Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal was among 16 racers who sat out.

After dominating training before last weekend’s downhill race but then finishing eighth behind Mayer, Miller is hoping he’ll be able to do well enough in that portion of Friday’s race to make up for what he’ll lose in the second leg.

But he figures that’ll be tough.

“Right now the downhill is so easy and so basic there’s nothing challenging about it, really,” said Miller, already the owner of a U.S.-record five Olympic medals. “There’s no way to put any time on the slalom guys. Everyone just skis normal and everyone is within a second and a half or so.”

Paris agreed.

He laughed at the idea of hoping for a 5-second lead after the downhill leg and added: “The slalom is so tough here that luck will count for a lot.”

Like others, he’s aware that Ante Kostelic is known for setting courses that are different from the week-in, week-out World Cup fare.

On Thursday morning, Rearick skied down the slalom slope that will be used for the super-combined and noticed that the seemingly random placing of gates removes much rhythm.

“It’s a course that’s obviously intended to trap guys, to knock people out. There’s no place on the course where you can really look for speed. So you have to ski smart from top to bottom,” Rearick said. “His obvious strategy is to knock out as many guys as possible to hope for a medal for Ivica.”

Ligety, meanwhile, is counting on a strong slalom showing. He’s certainly confident that he can produce on race day, four years after having a disappointing-for-him Winter Games.

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