Bode Miller, an indifferent Olympian in his younger days, made a rare admission after he finished eighth in the downhill race on Sunday.
Miller said he wanted to win the gold medal. He very badly wanted to win the gold medal.
He tried hard and bold, in classic Bode style. He charged down the Rosa Khutor course, plotting a line on the edge of disaster. He hit speeds of 84 mph. On one jump, he went airborne at an awkward angle, and looked for an instant like he might duplicate Hermann Maier’s wipeout of 1998. But he compressed his body back into a tuck and sliced through the turns on blazing edges.
Breathtaking though it was, Miller’s run wasn’t fast enough. Winner Matthias Mayer skied a cleaner race from top to bottom and brought redemption to Austria, the ski powerhouse that had been embarrassed by its lack of alpine medals at the 2010 Games.
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After Miller skidded into the finish corral in 2:06.75 — .52 seconds behind Mayer’s time — he hung his head. He had posted two of the three fastest training times, and opponents predicted an “epic” victory for Miller, 36, who was attempting to become the oldest skier to win an Olympic alpine race.
He lost it on the bottom, ranking 23rd in the fourth interval, and spectators went from cheering to groaning when they saw the splits. In that section, he looked a little ragged and tired.
“I would have loved to win,” Miller said. “It’s the premier event. I thought about it a lot.”
His regret was in contrast to 2006, when Miller casually boasted he had raced in a “wasted” hangover state and insisted he didn’t care about Olympic medals, only about the pure symbiosis of man and mountain. Whatever that meant. He was Bode being Bode, so he spent more time in discos than on the slopes at the Turin Olympics, shunned the Athletes Village for his Bode-mobile RV, and left Italy with zero medals, a disqualification and two DNFs in five races.
Now the anti-Olympian is back for his fifth Winter Games as a husband, father and ambitious gold digger. He has up to four more events to win that final medal of a career he might even blush to call distinguished. Next on Friday is super-combined; Miller is defending Olympic champion. On Sunday, super G; Miller won silver in 2010.
“He got the nerves out of the way,” U.S. men’s coach Sasha Rearick said. “I’m confident Bode will take his aggression to the next races.”
On Sunday, in the Caucasus Mountains above Sochi, blue skies were painted over by a translucent gray. Flat light and softer conditions didn’t favor Miller.
“Not to make excuses, but when the visibility goes bad it affects me quite a bit,” he said. “Guys who have a different balance and initiation process in their turns, it just doesn’t seem to faze them. Matthias is great that way.
“I had to change a lot from the training runs. I ski a bit more on the edge than most guys. I don’t have as much tolerance for not being able to see the snow. I need to know where the snow is at the beginning of the turn, middle of the turn, where the little bumps are.”
Miller, who started four slots after Mayer, was ahead of Mayer’s splits at the top of the course that descends 3,527 feet in two miles. But as he did during Friday’s practice, he had trouble on a turn before the Bear’s Brow jump. Miller hit a gate as he went into a slightly uphill section.
“He pounded that gate and lost a lot of speed,” Rearick said. “He was skiing a little defensively because he couldn’t see the texture of the snow.”
Miller, who hasn’t won a World Cup race in two years and is coming off knee surgery, said his third-place finish on Kitzbühel’s Hahnenkamm downhill last month gave him a boost for the Olympic Red Valley course where he crashed in 2012.
“I’m disappointed I didn’t get a medal, but I took risks and scrapped through the mistakes,” he said.
American Travis Ganong finished fifth.
Miller long argued that medals could never measure the elusive perfect run. But America’s most decorated skier is into legacy these days. How many races has he got left before he settles down? — if that’s possible for Miller, whose life often seems as pell mell as his races.
He grew up in the New Hampshire mountains with counter-culture parents in a handmade cabin without plumbing or electricity. Skiing was a form of expression, not competition, which meant Miller often clashed with U.S. Ski Team leadership, and he went it alone.
After winning three medals at the Vancouver Games, Miller moved to San Diego to be near his daughter. There, the guy who described himself as a “wood troll” in his autobiography Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun, took on a new incarnation: He lived on a 100-foot yacht, played golf, invested in race horses and married pro volleyball player Morgan Beck, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The past year brought turmoil and loss. Beck suffered a miscarriage. Miller’s younger brother Chelone died at 29 of a seizure disorder that had worsened since a dirt bike accident and head injury at 21. Miller has been in a nasty custody dispute over his 11-month-old son, whose mother lives in New York. He wants to be a devoted father so sees his vagabond tour life coming to an end.
“It’s one of those days where it’s hard to say where the time went,” Miller said after the downhill, but he could have been referring to a skiing career that has gone from iconoclastic to venerable.