WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) — Bode Miller finally won his elusive gold medal, using a blistering slalom run Sunday to complete one of the most unlikely Olympic comebacks ever.
Four years after bombing out amid lofty expectations at the Turin Games and a year after practically walking away from the sport, Miller won the super-combined for his third medal in as many events at Vancouver.
Seventh after the morning downhill run, Miller skied the third-fastest afternoon slalom leg for a two-run time of 2 minutes, 44.92 seconds — a comfortable 0.33 ahead of Ivica Kostelic of Croatia, who matched his silver medal at Turin. Silvan Zurbriggen of Switzerland claimed bronze, 0.40 back.
For a guy who has insisted that medals aren’t important, this one clearly was special.
“The way I executed, the way I skied, is something I’ll be proud of the rest of my life,” Miller said.
“I skied with 100 percent heart — I didn’t hold anything back. … It’s just awesome. There’s nothing else to say.”
Having skipped summer training while he debated retiring, Miller nearly didn’t have enough energy to hold on as he came over the final pitch of the slalom course.
“My legs started feeling really wobbly,” he said. “I didn’t even feel like I was looking at the gate anymore.”
Miller has also won a silver and a bronze at the Vancouver Games — a sharp contrast from his no-medal performance in Turin, where he made more headlines for his late-night partying than his skiing.
Miller said he was running on “fumes” following his first two races, the downhill and the super-G.
“I felt awesome about it,” he said. “But still, it’s incredibly emotionally exhausting to do it like that.
“I’ve got one leg that’s injured and another leg that’s on my boat already,” he added, looking forward to his postseason vacation.
Miller and Kostelic were 1-2 when downhill leader Aksel Lund Svindal came down, and when the big Norwegian failed to complete his slalom leg, Miller had the gold medal that had eluded him since he burst onto the scene at Salt Lake City in 2002.
“I figured they both had really good runs, so I couldn’t hold back,” Svindal said. “I had to attack it if I had any chance to get that gold.”
Miller was faster than Svindal on the upper section of the downhill run, but acknowledged a series of mistakes on the lower part. Still, having begun his career as a slalom specialist, he wasn’t counting himself out and charged all the way down in the second leg.
Miller increased his lead at both checkpoints in the slalom. He skied fluidly on the top, then started to get bounced up in the air as he tried to maintain his speed on the quicker gates in the lower section, dropping some speed before the finish but maintaining enough to beat Kostelic.
Miller let out a big smile upon crossing the finish line and stuck out his tongue while the crowd roared its approval.
Carlo Janka of Switzerland finished fourth and Ted Ligety, the American who won the traditional combined in Turin, finished fifth despite posting the fastest slalom run.
When Ligety won four years ago, the combined used the traditional format of one downhill run and two slalom legs. With only one slalom run now, the new format doesn’t favor Ligety as much, and he had too much ground to make up after placing 15th in the downhill.
Still, Ligety was pleased to have Miller replace him as Olympic champion — adding to his four world championship golds in four different disciplines.
“He’s been really motivated,” Ligety said. “It’s cool to really see him win an Olympic gold. That’s what’s been missing from his resume.”
In another stellar day for the U.S. team, Will Brandenburg posted the second-fastest slalom run and finished 10th overall in his Olympic debut. The Spokane, Washington, resident did not finish the only four World Cup races he entered.
Miller won two silvers at Salt Lake City and opened these games by taking bronze in the downhill and silver in the super-G. With five for his career, he is tied with Italy’s Alberto Tomba and Norway’s Lasse Kjus for second on the all-time Alpine list for men, trailing only the eight by Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway.
The three medals in Vancouver match the record for most by a man in Alpine skiing at a single Olympics. Aamodt won two silvers and a bronze at the 1994 Lillehammer Games, while Jean-Claude Killy swept all three events then held at the 1968 Grenoble Games and Toni Sailer did the same at Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956.
Miller’s victory boosted the U.S. medal tally in Alpine skiing at the Vancouver Games to a record eight — already three more than the five from Sarajevo in 1984 — with four races remaining.
Winning the super-combined was appropriate for Miller, who has always been proud of his overall skiing ability. By adding the times from one downhill run and one slalom leg, the super-combined is a true test of an overall skier.
It was Olympic redemption for the 32-year-old from Franconia, N.H.
After winning the World Cup overall title in 2004-05, he was touted as the star of the 2006 Turin Games. Instead, he didn’t win a medal of any kind. He failed to finish or was disqualified from three of five races and drew more headlines for partying than skiing.
Miller won a second World Cup overall in 2007-08 while racing independently from the U.S. Ski Team, but skipped the final four stops of the 2008-09 season and contemplated retirement, hanging out at the beach in California and spending time with his 1-year-old daughter. Refreshed and recommitted, he rejoined the U.S. team in September and hastily prepared for the World Cup season.
Over the years, Miller traditionally started the World Cup season strongly in October and wore himself down by February. By targeting his entire season around the Olympics, he entered in better form — and with a better mindset — than he did in Turin.
“Coming into the season out of shape was kind of a bonus for him,” Ligety said. “I think it helped him peak.”