LEVI, Finland - In the land of reindeer, Bode Miller makes his comeback to skiing with a slalom north of the Arctic Circle.
The two-time World Cup overall champion can hardly be considered a favorite this weekend at the circuit's northernmost venue. He has been off for nearly eight months and has been working out for only about four weeks
A year ago, Miller was second in the slalom opener on Levi's Black Course. His first slalom podium since 2004 proved to be his best result of the season. Last season, he failed to win a race for the first time in nearly 10 years.
Miller won the overall title in 2005 and 2008. He cut last season short and skipped the World Cup Finals in Sweden after failing to medal at the world championships - the third straight major championship at which he was unable to make the podium.
Despite his long layoff, the 32-year-old New Hampshire skier believes he can claim a third overall crown during this Olympic season.
"I think I always have a chance," he said last month in Austria before the World Cup giant slalom opener, an event he skipped. "I'm one of the few guys who skis all the events pretty well and that automatically gives me a chance."
For the second straight year, the U.S team undertook its final race preparations at Tarnaby in northern Sweden, the hometown of World Cup great Ingemar Stenmark. Tarnaby has similar light conditions to Levi.
Daylight hours this close to the Arctic Circle are between late morning and early afternoon, but the Americans were able to train at night under the lights at Tarnaby. At Levi, the lights are on for the second slalom run because it gets dark.
Defending overall champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, a speed ski specialist who concentrates in events like the downhill and super-G, will not compete this weekend because of a bruised leg.
Lindsey Vonn notched her first-career slalom win at Levi last year and went on to win the overall title, and the downhill and super-G crowns. The American is hoping to do it again Saturday.
"It's crazy, I love Levi. I'm a downhill skier, not a slalom skier, but maybe things are changing a little bit," Vonn predicted following her win a year ago.
Racing conditions are expected to be near ideal but very cold - the temperature was 3 degrees late Friday. This small ski resort is hosting World Cup slaloms for the fourth time since 2006. About 20,000 fans are expected to see the races, organizers said.
Most will be cheering Tanja Poutiainen, the Finn who won the opening World Cup race last month, a giant slalom in Austria in which Vonn was ninth. Poutiainen is the defending World Cup GS champion, but also skis well in the slalom.