One look at their deflated finish line reactions — Ligety hitting his helmet in frustration, Miller merely grimacing in disgust — was all it took to realize Friday wasn't their day.
On paper, soft snow conditions foiled their chances, but in reality their own sloppy skiing was equally at fault.
After drawing unlucky bibs for the downhill portion of the event that saw them running toward the rear of top seeded skiers, Miller (the defending Olympic champ from Vancouver) and Ligety (the reigning world champion) were forced to contend with a choppy course that had been shredded and rutted by early racers.
Considering his relatively mediocre downhill ability, Ligety made the most out of his opening run, finishing a respectable 18th place, albeit a full second behind slalom specialists like Ivica Kostelic (who would go on to collect his second straight silver in this event).
Miller, on the other hand, tried off-setting his poor starting position with a straighter, riskier line but paid for it with costly errors from start to finish. Rather than live up to his potential and win the downhill leg, his blunder-filled run put him in a distant 12th, well over a second adrift.
With both skiers on the back foot, the only option was to attack the slalom. But with a tight, tricky course and worries about the ever softening Sochi snow — temperatures reached an unseasonable 55 degrees Fahrenheit and racers were seen rubbing snow on their necks to cool down — each had their doubts.
After watching racer after racer crash, Ligety switched up his game plan and chose to ski conservatively, hanging on his edges instead of executing the quick, snappy weight transfers he's known for, clocking the third fastest run for the time being. But with 17 skiers still to come, the Utah-native knew his provisional placing wouldn't hold.
“To put it simply, I choked. That’s disappointing, and it would have been easier to be a lot faster, but it didn’t go that way" Ligety told reporters, refusing to blame the course and claiming conditions were far better than expected. "I could have gone way, way harder."
As for defending champ Miller, not even a course report over the radio from Ligety (who urged, "give yourself a little space, but this snow is completely rip-able, do not hold back") could help him salvage his race. Right out of the start house, the Olympic vet — who rarely races or trains slalom these days — sat back, flailed his arms and got behind and low on his line, letting the course ski him instead of vice versa.
Like Ligety, Miller made no excuses for his disappointing performance. “I was pretty lousy,” he told reporters, before tweeting: "I'll never stop pushing myself past my limits, but the mistakes that come with it are hard to swallow. #frustrationstation."
Frankly put, if Miller's slalom run was an example of his limits, then those limits are pretty low these days. In Salt Lake, the then Olympic rookie burst onto the scene with a stunning slalom portion in the combined (back then the event featured two slalom runs), surging to the silver medal position. Eight years later in Vancouver and with his best slalom days behind him, Miller was still able to take gold. But on Friday, the five-time Olympic medal winner laid down a run littered with mistakes no skier of his caliber should make.
Fortunately, Miller and Ligety will have a shot at redemption in Sunday's super g, where they'll again be considered among the favorites for gold.