Miller wins super-combined for 1st Olympic gold

This is the way Bode Miller always wanted it to happen, needed

it to happen.

An Olympic gold medal may be the ultimate evidence of skiing

success in everyone else’s eyes, but most assuredly not in his. If

the willful Miller ever was going to earn one and truly embrace the

accomplishment, this is how it had to be.

He conquered a tricky course with sometimes-spectacular skiing

that reminded him of being a kid on the slopes. He overcame a big

deficit by pushing himself despite a bum left knee and an aching

right ankle. In sum, he turned in a performance that pleased him,

regardless of what the clock said.

In this case, it just so happens, Miller’s total time from one

downhill and one slalom was Sunday’s best, allowing the 32-year-old

from Franconia, N.H., to win the super-combined event signifying

all-around skiing ability – and that first career gold. He now has

a record-tying three medals at these Olympics after only three

races, quite a comeback from his infamous flop at the 2006 Turin

Games and his near-retirement last year.

“The gold medal is great. I think it’s perfect. Ideally, that’s

what everyone is shooting for. But the way I skied these last races

is what matters. I would’ve been proud of that skiing with a medal

or not,” Miller said after turning in the third-fastest slalom leg

for an overall time of 2 minutes, 44.92 seconds, a comfortable 0.33

ahead of Ivica Kostelic of Croatia. Silvan Zurbriggen of

Switzerland got the bronze.

“The way I executed – the way I skied – is something I’ll be

proud of the rest of my life,” Miller said.

Whether he ever says so or not, it’s the Olympic gold medal that

changes history’s view of Miller. What happened in Turin is now an

aberration rather than the defining moment. Now he’ll always be

seen by those outside the sport as one of Alpine skiing’s greats

who frittered away one Olympics, not a should-have-been who never

fulfilled his promise.

“I mean, Bode has now done everything you can in skiing. He’s

won World Cups. He’s won World Cup overall titles,” said Will

Brandenburg of Spokane, Wash., who finished 10th in his Olympic

debut. “He’s won medals in every color. And now he’s got the gold.

And I think that’s big. He’s one of the best skiers of all time now

and no one can discredit that.”

Older and perhaps wiser – although good luck getting this guy to

admit the latter – Miller is at the top of his game at the right

time.

What a week.

He also won a bronze in Monday’s downhill and a silver in

Friday’s super-G, adding to two silvers at the 2002 Salt Lake City

Games. The five Alpine medals tie him for the second-most by any

man in Olympic history, behind only the eight won by Kjetil Andre

Aamodt of Norway.

At this point, who would doubt that Miller could keep going,

maybe coming up with something special in the two remaining events,

the giant slalom Tuesday and the slalom Saturday.

Miller was asked why he’s doing this now, and not in Italy four

years ago, when he tuned out, partied hard and failed to live up to

the expectations thrust on him by the media, by sponsors, by fans.

Miller only finished two of five races back then, never better than

fifth place.

In short, he said, what happened there was a reaction to all of

those expectations. And what’s happening here is a reaction to

enjoying a fresh sense of excitement after taking time away from

skiing and thinking about quitting before eventually deciding in

September to return to the U.S. Ski Team.

“In ’06, I didn’t really necessarily want to be there for a

number of reasons … but, you know, I also didn’t want to not be

there. So I was incredibly conflicted,” he said. “I think I had

no intention really of blowing it, but I raced as hard as I could,

but I didn’t have this motivation. I didn’t have the energy and the

enthusiasm.”

Some of that comes from spending more time around his younger

teammates. At the last Olympics, Miller stayed in his own RV, away

from the rest of the Americans. At these Olympics, he’s living in a

condo with everyone else, eating with everyone else, training with

everyone else, feeding off the energy of everyone else.

“He’s been really motivated,” said Ted Ligety, the surprise

2006 Turin gold medalist who was fifth Sunday. “It’s cool to

really see him win an Olympic gold. That’s what’s been missing from

his resume.”

Miller got a late start to training before the World Cup season,

and when he worked hard to get going, he hurt his left knee and

needed arthroscopic surgery in October to clean it out. Another

setback came in December, when Miller injured his right ankle

playing volleyball, of all things. On top of that, he took a bad

tumble in slalom training at Whistler, flying about 35 feet before

landing on his left hip.

In the downhill that opened the super-combined, Miller was only

seventh-fastest. He knew he had to make up time in the slalom, and

it didn’t help that he was hurting and felt exhausted, even if he

did begin his career as a slalom specialist.

Miller increased his lead at both checkpoints in the slalom, but

after skiing fluidly at the top, he barely managed to get through

one gate after another on a demanding course set by Kostelic’s

father and coach, Ante.

“I was like, ‘God, get me to the finish.’ I knew I had a great

run going, but I mean, I don’t know how I got those last 15

gates,” Miller said. “It was literally just willpower, because my

legs were completely shot.”

He moved into the lead, but had to wait while six other skiers

who were faster in the downhill portion got their turns, including

double medalist Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway.

“I couldn’t hold back,” Svindal said. “I had to attack it if

I had any chance to get that gold.”

But when Svindal, who had the fastest morning downhill, skied

off-course in the slalom, that gold medal was Miller’s.

As he walked away from the finish area, he stopped to sign

autographs and pose for pictures, even kneeling down to eye level

to thank one girl for her support. Miller’s own daughter turned 2

this week, and while he won’t tell you fatherhood changed him as a

person, he will say it made him reconsider his priorities away from

the slopes.

When he’s on skis, he refuses to change this stance: Medals are

not what matters.

Still, Miller’s father, Woody, who was at Sunday’s race, said

his kid “was hungry” to perform well this time around.

“He’s enjoying himself. That’s always been key for him. He lost

that. That was what was key in Torino,” Woody Miller said. “He

was going through the motions, but not really enjoying

himself.”

Miller did, indeed, make clear that he was happy to finally have

a gold, but he also repeatedly made the point that there are other

rewards he finds more satisfying.

“It’s hard to really describe in a way that makes sense, but

the actual gold medal doesn’t mean that much. If I’d won it in a

way that I wasn’t excited about or proud of today, I would have

probably resented the medal in a certain way because of what it

makes everyone else think,” Miller said.

A few minutes later, he added: “People are generally not good

at separating those two things. They think you’re proud because you

won an Olympic medal, and the reality is I’m proud because I skied

that way at the Olympics.”

With that, he walked away from the race site, heading off to

collect his new prize at the official medal ceremony in the village

below the mountain, his mountain. And then maybe, just maybe,

Miller would head out to celebrate his gold medal.