Four years ago, Bode Miller was the world’s reigning Alpine champion and the official poster boy for America’s medal hopes at the Turin Winter Games. And then he opened his mouth. He told one reporter that he liked to get “wasted” before hitting the slopes—“It’s like driving drunk only there’s no rules about it in ski racing”—and when his commitment to winning came under attack, he just kept on talking. After failing to capture even a single medal in 2006, Miller joked that at least he “got to party and socialize at an Olympic level.”
Tonight, Miller is finally partying for all the right reasons: his first gold. An outcast who arrived in Whistler as barely an afterthought, the 32-year-old American is making everyone forget what he failed to do last time around. His victory in today’s Super Combined follows the silver and bronze he captured earlier this week, making Miller, at least for now, the most decorated athlete of the Vancouver Games.
Yet in typical Bode Miller fashion, he isn’t buying into any token storylines about redemption or forgiveness. When asked if the gold medal is that much sweeter, considering the ups and downs of his career, he refused to bite. “I think, if anything, it means less to me than it would have earlier,” he said. “Earlier, I didn’t quite have the same peace of mind about my skiing and certainly myself.” Translation: Miller doesn’t need anyone, especially reporters, telling him that he’s finally made good.
“The gold medal is great,” he said. “It’s perfect. Ideally, that’s what everyone is shooting for. But the way I’ve skied in these last races is what matters. I would have been proud of that skiing with the medal or not. The three medals are kind of a distraction more than anything else because it makes everyone think I’m proud of the races because I got the medals, and really I was as proud of the races when I came across the finish line not knowing whether I’d won or not.”
For those who don’t follow Alpine skiing, the Super Combined is a two-heat race split into a downhill portion and a slalom portion. Miller was seventh after the first run, 0.76 seconds behind the leader. But his slalom performance—one of the best of his career—propelled him into first place with a total time of 2:44.92. Ivica Kostelic of Croatia earned the silver, while Silvan Zurbriggen of Switzerland took bronze. Ryan Semple was the top Canadian, placing a distant 15th. “I was exhausted in between runs,” Miller said. “But within ten seconds before my second run, I started to get that little bouncy feeling where everything hones in and you start to feel the shivers a little bit. I started to get that energy. I’m using the Olympics for what it’s supposed to be: an inspirational tool.”
His fans—including hundreds of flag-waving Americans standing at the finish line—are certainly inspired. This is a man, after all, who had quit the World Cup circuit last year and contemplated retirement. When he finally did decide to start skiing again, it wasn’t until November, just three months before the Opening Ceremonies in Vancouver. “Everybody is psyched about him being back on the team and we’re all super proud of his accomplishments here,” said fellow U.S. skier Ted Ligety, who finished fifth this afternoon. “I feel like he’s a lot more motivated this time around, and I think he likes having those performances where’s not really expected to win.”
Even Miller can agree with that. “I didn’t have the energy and the enthusiasm,” he said of Turin. “I just didn’t really necessarily want to be there for a number of reasons that I’ve always talked about. I also didn’t want to not be there. I was incredibly conflicted.”
Not surprisingly, Miller doesn’t like to reminisce about the old days. When journalists try to ask him questions about his “rollercoaster” journey or past mistakes, he always offers the same answer: “I’ll leave that up to you guys.” But even with a gold medal safely around his neck, it’s clear that the sting of 2006 is still very fresh in Miller’s mind.
“IOC-bashing is probably not the ideal line of questioning to go through, but the Olympics is definitely in my mind a two-sided coin,” he said. “It has all the best things of sport: amazing energy, enthusiasm, passion and inspiration. It’s what changes lives, and in that sense it’s the pinnacle of what sports and camaraderie is. On the flip side of that is the opposite: the corruption, the abuse and the money. I’m not pointing fingers, but that’s what was bothering me. And being thrust in the middle of that—being the poster boy for that when it’s the absolute thing I despise the most in the world—was really draining on my inspiration and my level of passion. Those are the things that I function on when I’m racing, so I just had the plug pulled out on my most important fuel source. It had been happening for a year, and it was just too much.”
This year, Miller has too much of something else: medals.