SOELDEN, Austria - If skiing's opening weekend was any indication, the United States is in for quite an Olympic season.
Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin, Bode Miller and Tim Jitloff underlined the squad's enormous potential on the Rettenbach glacier in Austria.
"I'm really happy with how things are going," U.S. Alpine director Patrick Riml said. "The coaches and staff did an unbelievable job getting the athletes ready."
And with Lindsey Vonn planning to return in a month from right knee surgery and Julia Mancuso always a threat on a big stage, the Americans could surpass their eight medals from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics at the Sochi Games, which run Feb. 7-23.
"Everything is going on track," Riml said. "I'm feeling confident with our whole setup."
Ligety won the opening giant slalom for the third consecutive year. The 18-year-old Shiffrin matched her career-best World Cup result in the discipline with a sixth-place finish. Miller marked his return from 20 months off by placing 19th after starting outside the top 30. Jitloff was 20th with one big error that probably cost him about 10 positions.
Perhaps the only negative note was Mancuso finishing 27th. But Mancuso always seems to save her best for major championships, as evidenced by her gold medal in giant slalom at the 2006 Turin Games and two silvers in Vancouver.
"Julia is always showing she does well at the big events," former U.S. men's head coach Phil McNichol said. "Lindsey is Lindsey. Ted is coming off three (gold) medals at the world championships. Bode's back in the mix. Mikaela is going to be a force to be reckoned with. So it's going to be a very interesting Olympic cycle."
Ligety dominated giant slalom last season, winning six of eight races on the World Cup plus the world championship race in Schladming, Austria, where he was also a surprise winner in super-G and super-combined.
"Last year we had an awesome prep here but this year was less so, so I wasn't 100 per cent confident of how I was skiing," Ligety said. "But then we had good training here in Soelden and the last couple of weeks I started to feel a little better. It's nice to have some confirmation."
Ligety is enjoying having his childhood friend and former junior world downhill champion Adam Cole on the coaching staff this season.
"We grew up together," Ligety said. "He's also young and athletic so he can do dry-land with us and we can go play other sports and push each other."
Shiffrin dominated in slalom last season with four wins plus the world title and now looks like a two-event threat with her giant slalom vastly improved. After the Olympics, Shiffrin could expand into the speed events.
Shiffrin is also maturing off the hill. Her mother, who has accompanied her in Europe for the past two seasons, said this is probably the last season she'll be there.
"I may not have to stay here as she keeps getting more and more comfortable," Eileen Shiffrin said.
Shiffrin has improved so much in GS that she was beating male teammates in training the past couple of weeks.
Which guys was she beating? That's still a secret.
"Shiffrin was skiing unbelievably fast," men's head coach Sasha Rearick said. "I'm not going to tell you."
As for the 36-year-old Miller — yes, he's twice Shiffrin's age — his new slimmer frame appears to be paying off. The two-time overall World Cup winner lost nearly 30 pounds during his season off to recover from left knee surgery.
Miller skied to 13th place with the No. 32 bib in the opening run and was able to hang on in the second leg.
"I wasn't tired at all," Miller said. "I think my fitness is higher now for a World Cup than it's ever been. I'm snappy and springy and I can go as long as the courses are. ... There's obviously some lack of inertia, some weight, but I don't think that's going to be an issue."
If Miller already has his form back in giant slalom, he could really excel in the speed events of downhill and super-G, where he's had nearly all of his wins in recent years.
"GS was the one event where we hadn't been able to put the most volume in because it was causing some more knee irritation," Rearick said. "So if he's been able to do what he's done this week, it's beyond my expectations."
Miller's fitness should also get a boost from the speed team's newly hired conditioning coach, Tony Beretzki, an Austrian who once worked with Hermann Maier and Stephan Eberharter and spent the last four years with the Spartak Moscow soccer team.
With Miller out last season, downhillers Marco Sullivan, Steven Nyman and Travis Ganong each had solid starts, but their conditioning dropped off around January.
"He has brought a great, great program and is doing an awesome job," Rearick said.
The women's speed team, meanwhile, is coming off a record-breaking season that included podium finishes not just for Vonn and Mancuso, but also for Stacey Cook, Alice McKennis, Leanne Smith and Laurenne Ross.
The bar of expectations has been raised for Cook & Co. this season.
"You definitely want to back up those results," women's head coach Alex Hoedlmoser said. "You want to be contenders with all of those girls on a regular basis."
The speed teams don't race until events in Lake Louise, Alberta, and Beaver Creek, Colo., on Thanksgiving weekend. Next up are slaloms in Levi, Finland, Nov. 16-17.
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