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Ligety, Bode, Jitloff give US men strong start

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ANDREW DAMPF | October 27, 2013 03:32 PM EST | AP

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SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — Ted Ligety dominated again. Bode Miller returned from 20 months off with a solid performance. And even unheralded Tim Jitloff showed big potential.

The U.S. men's ski team made a strong showing Sunday in opening the Olympic season.

Ligety won the season-opening World Cup giant slalom on the Rettenbach glacier for the third consecutive year. Miller finished 19th despite starting outside the top 30 and Jitloff placed 20th but would have been far higher if not for a big mistake in his second run.

"Those three guys skied unbelievably," U.S. Alpine director Patrick Riml said. "Obviously, with Ted winning, and for Bode to make it in there after that long a break he's on the right track so that should give him a lot of confidence, and Jit is awesome. ... He showed us today that he's ready to break into the top five and the podiums."

Ligety established a large 0.90-second lead in the opening run and held on to win by 0.79 seconds ahead of Alexis Pinturault of France. Two-time defending overall World Cup winner Marcel Hirscher of Austria finished third, 1.02 behind.

This wasn't quite the massive 2.75-second victory margin that Ligety had in this race last season, but the result showed that his main challengers still have not caught up a year after new equipment rules were put in place.

"It's nice to be able to consistently do well here," said Ligety, who has now finished on the podium in this race six straight times. "This is always a hill that suits me well because you don't have to think about tactics too much because there is not so much terrain to it. So you can just charge and trust your skiing."

Strong wind forced organizers to move the start down 10 gates, meaning skiers faced the course's steep, long and straight pitch almost directly out of the gate. And the pitch is where Ligety excelled, where he showed his flexibility at every turn, leaning into the curves and touching the snow with his hips and hands to achieve the sharpest angles.

After a summer marked by difficult training conditions in New Zealand and Chile, Ligety was relieved he could still dominate as he did last season, when he won six of eight World giant slaloms and also won the GS at the world championships.

"It's nice to have some confirmation, especially in that first run, getting a little bit of a margin," Ligety said. "The first run was super smooth — it didn't feel like anything crazy. I just was able to ski smoothly the whole way down."

In the second run, Ligety just had to maintain his lead, and when he reached the finish line as the last man down he celebrated by slamming his hand into a TV camera. It was an appropriate knockout punch — or a message to his rivals.

"Maybe one or two guys can close the gap in some of the races, but Soelden and Alta Badia, Ted has a couple of courses where he's really, really good," said Norwegian rival Aksel Lund Svindal, who finished tied for fourth with Steve Missillier of France.

A race-record 15,000 fans were in attendance. While it was windy at times, conditions were perfect for the first run then clouds came in for the second leg.

The crowd roared when Miller got into the start gate for his return after taking last season off to recover from left knee surgery — and the two-time overall World Cup winner rose to the occasion.

Showing off a slimmer frame after losing nearly 30 pounds since he last raced, Miller skied to 13th place with an error-free opening run. He dropped some time in his second leg but just reaching the finish after being out so long was an achievement for a racer who is often known just as much for his crashes as his wins.

"I'm skiing a lot faster than that in training. But it's different in races. You have to get a good start position first. But getting some points is good," said Miller, at 36 the second-oldest skier in the 80-man field. "I'm right there. ... I'm not too old to win."

Miller had microfracture surgery after injuring his knee during the test event on the Sochi Olympics course in February 2012, and he has plenty of time to get back into top form for the games in the Black Sea resort this February.

"I'm super stoked to have Bode back with us, so fired up and in great spirits and skiing the way he was," U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick said. "To have him back on tour, for the whole World Cup, for the whole American team and also for all the fan bases, is just so great."

The 28-year-old Jitloff has three career top-10 finishes on the World Cup. It looked as the Reno, Nev., racer might have another after he placed ninth in the opening run, but an error at the start of his second leg proved costly.

"With that kind of mistake still being 20th it's not bad," Jitloff said. "But I know I'm fast enough right now to be in the top 10. Consistency isn't even an issue for me anymore. I want to be charging for top fives at this point."

Jitloff won two GS races on the second-tier Europa Cup last season.

"Jitloff is the guy you have to watch," Ligety said. "Him and I are kind of battling in training. I normally end up having the fastest run of the day, but he beats me in a lot of the runs of the day as well. So we've had a good little back and forth. Maybe that's part of why I was a little bit nervous about my preparation because Jit's right there with me."

The other three Americans did not qualify for the second run. Robby Kelley of Starksboro, Vt., placed 38th in the opening leg and Tommy Biesemeyer of Keene, N.Y., was 63rd, while Kieffer Christianson of Anchorage, Alaska, skied off course a few gates into his World Cup debut.

Next up for the men is a slalom in Levi, Finland. If Ligety is to challenge for the overall World Cup title, he knows he'll have to improve in the slalom.

"I trained slalom more than anything else this summer," he said.

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