KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – In a couple of days, after a few more races, Bode Miller will make it official.
The most decorated skier America has ever produced, and one of the most talented the sport has ever seen, will be done with the Olympics at age 36, after competing in five Winter Games and winning five medals – so far – but without the gold in the one discipline he wanted most.
Bode being Bode, getting him to admit either is a long shot.
After finishing eighth in the downhill, the first of five men’s races here, Miller paused for a long time at the bottom of the course Sunday and stared back up the hill for a long time. Asked what he was thinking at that moment, he launched into one of those rambling answers that make it hard to know how much he believed and how much was said simply to get a rise out of his audience.
As someone with extensive experience interviewing Miller, who also happens to be one of the most entertaining and exasperating athletes I’ve ever run across, my translation follows his remarks in parentheses.
What Miller said: “I was just going through the run, seeing if there was anything that I would change or how I feel.”
(Translation: “If I’d known I was going to finish eighth, I would have stayed in bed.”)
Miller: “It’s tough when you have to judge yourself, because the clock doesn’t really seem to judge you fairly.”
(Translation: “If there were style points in skiing, like figure skating or that goofy new slopestyle snowboard race, I’d have won every event I ever entered.”)
Miller: “Just like I’ve said a million times, I’m not always so attached to the result. I would have loved to get a gold medal today or any medal, but I was making sure that I knew where I was at, before I had to go deal with everybody else telling me what they thought.”
(Translation: “I wish you guys would just disappear.”)
Frankly, what should have been a sweet story about the closing flourish by an aging skier to cap one of the great careers in Olympic Alpine history can’t be told without asking “What if?”
Miller’s talent has always been equal parts blessing and burden. In addition to the five Olympic medals, he won two overall World Cup titles and left rivals gaping at his margins of victory and how he recovered from mistakes that would have crashed almost anyone else.
Yet for someone who inspired so much awe in others, he should have won more.
At the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Miller came in without expectations and exited with two silvers. By the time the Turin Games rolled around in 2006, he was considered a lock to medal in all five races, only to squander his best moves off the course and inside a disco. At the 2010 Vancouver Games, instead of partying like an Olympian, Miller finally skied like one, winning a medal in each color and pretending that he couldn’t care less.
“Why perform now?” Miller said at the time. “Because most likely, it’s what I wanted to do.”
Miller also wanted to revolutionize the sport, and he did. He grafted the style, equipment and attitude he picked up from snowboarding and gradually convinced nearly everyone in the alpine establishment to embrace and copy it. Yet the genius that enabled him to survive one close call after another was the same thing that lured him out onto the edge again and again.
Matthias Mayer, the 23-year-old Austrian who won the downhill gold Sunday with a very cautious, technical run, counts Miller among his idols. So does U.S. teammate Marco Sullivan, who a day earlier spoke about Miller’s inimitable style in almost-mystical tones.
“The angles his body can stack up, his bone structure in a way, that it just looks like he is … it’s effortless,” Sullivan said. “The turns he is making, there is so much pressure coming up from the ski and the way he’s absorbing it and making it happen – it is just like, it is just the way it should be.”
Sullivan was echoing what skiers of every nationality and style have said about Miller since he first exploded onto the scene: namely, that they don’t understand why he doesn’t win every time out, let alone how he does what he does.
Neither, apparently does Miller.
“I would have loved to win, obviously,” he said finally. “This is the premier event, and it’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit. But when it’s out of your control, that kind of takes the disappointment away, more or less. I mean, I don’t think I would change much, the way I skied. I think I skied well enough to win, but it just doesn’t happen sometimes.”
Or at least not often enough.