KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Right up until the start of the Olympic downhill on Sunday morning, the ski experts didn’t know quite what to make of Bode Miller.
In the space of three weeks, Miller had established himself as a clear medal favorite, breaking through with two top-three finishes at Kitzbuehel and dominating two of the three training runs on the treacherous course at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center.
A year earlier, when Miller was recovering from microfracture surgery on his knee, it seemed more likely that he would retire from competitive skiing than return for a fifth Olympics as a favorite.
But Miller declared himself ready, saying he was physically and mentally more prepared than in 2010 and that he was ready to kick butt in Russia. Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, who had been the downhill favorite, said Miller was the man to beat after watching him blow away the field in Saturday’s training.
Still, the seasoned U.S. ski media seemed to be wary. Miller’s comeback had been surprisingly sudden. He hadn’t won a race in two years. If there was one thing they had learned about Miller through the years, it was that you could never predict what he’d do next.
Miller fell apart in 2006, when everyone was prepared for greatness.
He had won three medals in 2010 when the world was looking the other way.
Having elevated expectations in so short a time, could Miller really become the oldest man to win an Olympic alpine medal at 36?
No. Miller finished eighth. On an overcast day with the sun peeking through the clouds, he got off to his typically torrid start.
Two fifths of the way through, Miller was well ahead of the leader’s pace, seemingly on his way to winning his sixth Olympic medal.
But around the halfway mark, Miller appeared to momentarily lose his line. He brushed a gate on a right turn and lost speed through the middle of the downhill and quickly fell off medal pace.
Miller finished in 2:06.75, or 0.66 seconds slower than his dazzling run in practice the day before. If they awarded Olympic medals for training runs, he would have a gold and silver hanging around his neck.
Austria’s Matthias Mayer, who had never finished first in 65 previous World Cup or world championship races, took the gold in 2:06.23. Christof Innerhofer of Italy was second. Svindal, who had predicted he would need to beat Miller to win gold, was third.
Svindal was right. The problem was, six other men finished ahead of Miller.
When he crossed the finish line, Miller looked up at his time on the electronic scoreboard and hung his head in dismay. Then he slumped backward onto the snow and used his ski poles to propel himself to the exit.
There was a stunned silence in the “mixed zone,” where the Olympic media stand and wait for competitors to depart from the competition. A horde of Americans had made the two-hour trek up the mountain to Rosa Khutor to see Miller make history. They heard him make excuses instead.
“I didn’t really make a mistake,” Miller said. “I mean, I hit gates, but as you guys know, hitting gates doesn’t really make any difference. I continued to build pressure. It was just that middle part of the course. It slowed down, you know? It’s one of the big challenges of ski racing.
“Sometimes, it’s not in your hands.”
Miller later admitted he made “a few little mistakes,” but nothing of any great consequence. He said the big problem was the visibility, which made it difficult for him to see the snow and see the bumps that can affect a racer’s ride.
“Not to make any excuses,” he said, “but when the visibility goes bad, it affects me quite a bit. Guys who have a little bit different balance and initiation process in their turns, it doesn’t seem to faze them.”
I’m no ski expert. The only initiation process I know was in “Animal House.” But when he blamed the visibility, Miller sounded like some teenager who just crashed his dad’s car, searching for plausible cover.
The middle section of the course did seem tougher for several skiers who competed later. But not all of them lost time on the leader. Evidently, the conditions weren’t as advantageous for Miller as in practice. But if you promise to kick butt, you’re supposed to rise to the challenge.
“This can be a tough one to swallow,” Miller said, “having skied so well in the training runs and come in way out of the medals. But I think I skied really well, honestly. I was super aggressive. The conditions didn’t favor me today, but all things considered, I skied really well.”
I’ll take his word for it. But when Miller said he’d skied well for the fifth time, he reminded me of Tiger Woods, explaining how well he’d hit the ball after shooting 74 and falling out of contention in a golf major.
Some of the greatest athletes have a way of rationalizing their failures, as if they need to convince themselves that forces beyond their control – tough greens, poor visibility – conspired against them. In their psyche, they need to sustain the unshakable belief that they’re still the best.
The downhill is an unforgiving event. You have one run, two minutes and change, to prove yourself. It has to be tough for a complex man like Miller to find a balance. Earlier in his career, he contended that it really wasn’t about winning medals, but having fun and competing on the edge.
But he wanted it badly this time. His wife, Moran, seemed devastated when the cameras found her after her husband’s run. Miller seemed mellow in his old age, less eager to deny his desire for medals. That had to make it harder for him to come close to a historic performance and fall short.
“I would have loved to win, obviously,” Miller said. “This is the premier event and something I thought about quite a bit. 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. I think I skied well enough to win, but it just doesn’t happen sometimes.”
It would be moving to see the most decorated male skier in U.S. history go out with one more gold. Americans are a forgiving people. They love tales of redemption. They would relish the chance to see skiing’s former bad boy win one for the old guys. Miller could have three more chances before the Sochi Games are finished.
I guess that’s why he couldn’t see Sunday as failure. He could have some magic in those skis yet. Let’s hope the visibility improves.