- Associated Press - Sunday, February 9, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - For a downhill racer, Travis Ganong was in no rush to get to the top.

The young American has ever so steadily built up to competing in the premier event of Alpine skiing, not willing to take too many risks in his career until he was good and ready. On Sunday, before making his Olympic debut, he even got stuck on a gondola ride going up the mountain.

But once on the course at Rosa Khutor, the 25-year-old Californian let everything go - fear, expectations, pressure - and flew down the hill to finish a surprising fifth in his first men’s Olympic downhill.

“Getting better and better each year … and gaining more confidence,” said Ganong, who finished in 2 minutes, 6.64 seconds - 0.41 seconds behind winner Matthias Mayer of Austria.

“Now, I’m at a point where I can just relax and enjoy myself and just ski,” he said. “Beforehand, I was really nervous and over-thinking things and really trying to do too much. I know my skiing is good and I just need to relax.”

Long billed as the future of the American downhill, Ganong was better on this overcast afternoon than American star Bode Miller, who wound up eighth.

“When I was a little kid growing up, I watched him on TV. I was a ski racer and skier, but I never considered being his teammate one day,” Ganong said. “He is an inspiration. He is a legend. It’s really nice to have him as a teammate.”

Once on the course, Ganong at times channels Miller’s aggressive nature. At others, he looks more like another of his skiing idols, the always tactical Daron Rahlves, a four-time Olympian who Ganong counts as a good friend.

When Ganong glided across the line Sunday, he instantly glanced up at the scoreboard - first place.

Sure, he knew it wouldn’t last. There were many more skiers to go and he made a few mistakes he knew had cost him time. But to wind up fifth - when he’s never finished in the top five on the World Cup circuit - was more than he expected.

“Fantastic day for Travis,” said his coach, Sasha Rearick. “First Olympics and for him to come out to the gate, right out of the bat like that? I’m stoked with his performance.”

From here, it doesn’t get any easier for Ganong here in Sochi.

His longtime girlfriend is Canadian skier Marie-Michele Gagnon, who is one of the favorites in Monday’s super-combined. The two, who celebrated their sixth year anniversary Sunday, met at a ski race in Canada and went on their first date soon after. Fittingly, it was for some powder skiing in Lake Tahoe.

Ganong likes Gagnon’s chances to medal, especially after giving her some “inspiration from today.”

“I was really fired up with the way I was able to step it up on a day like today … and find some speed,” Ganong said. “I’m pretty happy.”

While Miller shined in training sessions, Ganong struggled a bit, even losing a ski during his practice run on Saturday. He thinks that helped a day later.

“Had a day off, pretty much,” said Ganong, who plans on racing the super-G next Sunday. “I had a lot of energy today and left it out on the hill. It was awesome.”

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