WHISTLER, British Columbia – Bode Miller seemed oddly silent riding the lift to the mountaintop alongside U.S. teammate Marco Sullivan for Monday’s Olympic downhill.
“I don’t think we said a word to each other,” Sullivan said.
Later, hanging out in the athletes’ lounge as race time approached, other skiers were surprised by Miller’s mood, too.
“It was fascinating,” said Liechtenstein’s Marco Buechel, who is at his sixth Winter Games and has known Miller for years. “He said he was nervous. I’m like, ‘What?! Nervous? You? I never saw you like that.’ ”
One never knows what to expect from the ever-enigmatic Miller, on the slopes or off. As a favorite four years ago in Turin, he flopped. As something of an afterthought this time around, he flourished.
With a controlled run down a choppy slope Monday, Miller won the downhill bronze behind Switzerland’s Didier Defago and Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal at the Vancouver Games for his U.S.-record third career Olympic Alpine medal.
At the last Winter Games, Miller said Monday, “I wasn’t emotionally very involved in the races. I was treating them very cold and clinical.”
Now, in contrast, “I let myself go more.”
Maybe it’s because he considered retiring six months ago. Maybe it’s because he’s the father of a toddler. Maybe it’s because there is less attention, fewer sponsor commitments, not as much “minutiae,” as Miller called it.
Asked what’s changed most about him since 2006, Miller replied: “It doesn’t feel like anything. I’m pretty steady, actually. I’ve been about the same since as long as I can remember.”
Had the 32-year-old from Franconia, N.H., won, he would have been the oldest Olympic men’s downhill champion. Instead, that honor went to Defago, also 32 but, unlike Miller, never before a medalist at an Olympics or world championships.
By zipping down the course in 1 minute, 54.31 seconds, Defago claimed his country’s first Olympic gold medal in men’s Alpine skiing since 1988. Pumping his arms in the air after completing the run, Defago nearly tumbled backward over the padding that lines the finish area.
“I’ve always believed in myself,” Defago said.
Not everyone did. The guy even had to earn a spot on the Swiss downhill roster at Whistler with a good training run last week.
The opening Alpine race of these Olympics originally was scheduled for Saturday, but was delayed because of snow, rain and too-warm temperatures that made for a messy mountain. Cold, dry weather overnight allowed the slope to freeze.
“The conditions were perfect for me,” Defago said. “I knew I would do well, but I never expected to do this well.”
Don’t call this an upset, though.
“I knew Didier was on fire,” said his Swiss teammate, Didier Cuche, who already owns an Olympic silver from 1998 and was expected to fare better Monday than his sixth-place finish before breaking his thumb last month. “He makes no more of those big mistakes he used to.”
Any sort of glitch would have made a difference on this day: With reigning overall World Cup champion Svindal only 0.07 seconds behind Defago, and Miller 0.09 back, it was the tiniest margin between first and third in Olympic men’s downhill history.
Several skiers thought the earliest racers were at a disadvantage, because the sun didn’t really peek through the clouds until about 15 spots into the start list, making it easier to see the ruts and bumps created by a week of far-from-ideal weather. Miller went eighth, 10 spots before Defago.
“It’s kind of too bad,” said Miller’s teammate, Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid, N.Y., who was fourth out of the gate and finished 21st. “If he had better light, he could have made up that 9-hundredths.”
Swaying side to side while someone with the U.S. Ski Team screamed to pump him up at the outset, Miller started solidly, tucking through the upper gliding sections. He was nearly a full second faster than the early leader at the second checkpoint.
But Miller gave back nearly a half-second on the bottom portion of the course and wasn’t perfect on the final jump. In the finish area, Miller tapped his fists on his green helmet; he later said he figured his run – which put him in the early lead – wouldn’t be good enough for gold or silver.
Then again, Miller long has maintained he cares far more about producing laudable skiing runs than earning medals or other accolades. Which maybe was a good thing, given that he failed to deliver a top-3 finish at the last three big international events.
He sure did look pleased during a photo op in the finish area Monday, smiling while climbing up from his place on the third step to Defago’s higher perch and throwing an arm around the winner.
And, yes, Miller said, it’s true: He had a case of the jitters. No matter that this is all so very been-there, done-that for someone who burst onto the scene with two silvers at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
“That was the feeling I’ve been searching for, and I let it build up. I was real nervous before I went, but excited-nervous, not anxiety-nervous,” Miller said. “Normally as an athlete, a veteran of 400 World Cup races, you kind of repress that stuff. … I used to crash all the time because of it. But I think that’s part of why I wanted to come back.”
It’s why he decided to rejoin the U.S. Ski Team after training and competing independently for the past two years. It’s why he decided to return to the Olympics after his disastrous, distraction-filled trip to Turin, where he generated far more buzz with his late-night partying than with his skiing prowess.
“Sometimes his focus wanders,” said Sullivan, who crashed Monday but was OK, “and, obviously, today he was very focused.”
After the postrace flower ceremony, after the doping test, after the news conference and other interviews, Miller headed down the mountain. Another race comes today, the super-combined, and he once again is a part of any conversation about contenders.
“He is ski racing because he wants to ski race,” said Miller’s agent, Lowell Taub, “and I think you see that in the performance.”
As they strode away, Taub threw an arm around Miller’s shoulders and shook vigorously, a celebratory half-hug.
Miller refused to call it redemption. The record book forever will call it a bronze.