BEAVER CREEK - Aksel Lund Svindal has skied the Birds of Prey course countless times in his mind - following a crash here in 2007, the Norwegian said he had no choice but to repeatedly run over the track in his head in order to bounce back.
Svindal bounced back all right by winning the Birds of Prey downhill and super-G the very next year, and going into tomorrow's downhill, many competitors are saying he's the man to beat again.
Svindal won the third training run Thursday with a time of 1 minute 42.04 seconds. And though Svindal didn't have a bad year last year, it appears at least early on in the World Cup season that he's bouncing back again after a downhill and Super G win in Lake Louise, Alberta, last weekend.
"I think I'm more stable than I was last year," Svindal said Thursday.
Svindal was disappointed with his second training run on Wednesday after trying some changes with his equipment, but Thursday he was on. He spent time Wednesday night watching video of his technique and mistakes, and he also watched video footage of American Travis Ganong, who won Wednesday's training run with a time of 1 minute 41.38 and skied a clean run.
Svindal said he knew he had to clean it up for the final day of training in preparation for the race.
"You can't have slow sections, and I think Pumphouse, Screech Owl and onto the flats before Golden Eagle could decide the race because we come in there with big speed and it's two big turns, so it's definitely a potential there for winning or losing the race I feel like," Svindal said.
Ganong said he made a mistake Thursday but it was on a steep section and he was able to pick up speed quickly. After winning his first downhill training run ever Wednesday and coming in fourth Thursday, he's feeling good about race day.
"I'm going to do the same exact thing as I did in the training runs," Ganong said about his strategy for Friday's race. "I've been fast all summer long in training, and it's just really cool to see now - on a World Cup hill - that I can be fast in training here, too. The skiing is there, the speed is there, so I'll just stick to the plan and really have fun and enjoy it, and whatever happens, happens."
Joachim Puchner, of Austria, was fastest Thursday at the first split but couldn't maintain the pace throughout the course. He finished 10th Thursday, with a time of 1:43.13. When asked who could win Friday, he said "Aksel's pretty fast." "Yesterday was a bit better. Today I had some mistakes, but all in all it was a good run," Puchner said.
The snow on the course is "amazing," Puchner said. Many of the racers have called Beaver Creek one of the best downhill courses in the world, and the conditions are no different this year.
"They always have a perfect slope. It has everything. We have slow and flat parts, we have steep waves, big jump - you need to be, in every part, pretty fast to win the race," Puchner said. "This is one of the hardest downhills to win."
After three days of training runs, many skiers said the course is almost like new.
"It's really good. I think that's the beauty of having these kinds of conditions is that it just holds up so well cause ice tends to - you get chunks of ice that come loose, but this is so smooth that there's one or two turns that's a little bouncing, but everything else is like you're skiing it for the first time," Svindal said.
Svindal's course report is that the top seems to have less terrain - because crews would build terrain with natural snow, which is lacking this year - but he said the steep terrain feels more aggressive. Also, the Harrier Jump - the second-to-last jump on the course - is smaller, but it seems faster, Svindal said.
American Marco Sullivan finished 20th in training Thursday and said the course is "feeling great." Sullivan is coming off an exciting weekend in Lake Louise where he tied Austrian Klaus Kroell for third place in the downhill.
"The track, after three training runs, is still relatively smooth and the guys are throwing down up there," Sullivan said. "There's a lot of guys skiing fast in certain sections so today was the last chance to really try and piece everything together and nail it, so we're really confident for tomorrow."
Sullivan said Wednesday he thought the Birds of Prey record time of 1 minute 39.59 seconds, set by Daron Rahlves in 2003, might fall on Friday after seeing training times this week. Thursday, however, he changed his mind.
"I said that yesterday, but I'm kind of second-guessing myself," Sullivan said. "There's some sections of the course that are set a lot turnier than when Daron set that record, so it'll come close but I don't think we'll break it."
BEAVER CREEK - Could this be the year that American Ted Ligety brings home the World Cup overall title?
Ligety thinks it could happen, and one of his biggest competitors for the championship - Aksel Lund Svindal - thinks so, too.
"That's been a goal of mine for a while - to try to be a contender for the overall - and you know, I haven't really pieced together a streak like a lot of other guys have," Ligety said. "I'm one of the only guys that's been top 10 in the overall standings for 5-6 years in a row, but just never had a streak (like some other guys have) ... so hopefully I can try to have one of those this year and be closer and then we'll see."
Ligety finished 24th in downhill training Thursday, but downhill isn't Ligety's specialty. He's a giant-slalom machine with 12 World Cup wins in the discipline (plus a World Championships win in 2005), with the most recent being at Soelden, Austria, in October. He's been trying to pick up his pace elsewhere and succeeded this past weekend with a fourth-place finish in super-G at Lake Louise, Alberta.
Ligety was 22nd at the Birds of Prey downhill in 2011 and did not finish the Beaver Creek super-G both in 2010 and 2011. He won giant slalom here, however, both in 2010 and 2011.