Barreling down icy mountainsides with abandon, his skis chattering in protest, his heart free.
That’s how Bode Miller won Olympic gold in the men’s combined race today. But it’s also how he used to ski as a tyke on the cold, shady slopes of New Hampshire’s Cannon Mountain when no one was looking.
And what made him most thrilled today was not the color of his medal – his third this week – but the fact that despite all that was riding on his skis today, he was able to put that all aside and ski with the same joy and freedom he had back then.
“When I ski like that, it’s how I used to ski when I was little,” said Miller, after coming back from seventh in the downhill this morning to lay down an amazing slalom run. “You’re not thinking about all the things that old people are supposed to think about.”
Things like, “Don’t crash,” for example. In Miller’s nearly 350 World Cup races, he’s failed to finish or been disqualified in roughly 40 percent of them. But he didn’t let that minor detail get between him and the gas pedal today.
“I put down absolute wide-open runs,” he said, adding that he’d be proud of his race today for the rest of his life – even if he had gotten fourth place for it. “I skied with 100 percent heart, didn’t hold anything back.”
Four Americans in the top-11
Miller’s performances are not only inspiring himself and his coaches; they’re fueling historic momentum on the US squad. Today’s three top times in slalom came from 2006 gold medalist Ted Ligety, rookie Will Brandenburg, and Miller. And rising star Andrew Weibrecht, who won a surprise bronze earlier in the week, probably would have been up there had he not crashed right at the finish line.
Still, in the final standings, they ended up 1, 5, 10, 11 – besting every other team here, including the dominant Austrians, who have crumbled under the pressure.
“I am really proud of Bode, but I’m ecstatic that Ted Ligety won the run and Will Brandenburg, who has never done a Super Combined on the World Cup … fought back from a massive crash yesterday … and just smoked the slalom run,” said the men's head coach, Sasha Rearick, after the race.
“Ted came out and just went like hell. And Weibrecht’s dive across the finish line – how inspiring is that?” he practically yelled as he punctuated the snow with the tails of his skis, sending his sunglasses flying.
Miller's dad: 'He was dreading Torino'
When Miller woke up at 5:45 a.m. this morning, he didn’t feel like a gold medalist. He was dragging, and the eggs and bacon he had for breakfast didn’t help. Feeling “pretty ripped” after flying 100 feet and crashing on his hip in a routine slalom training session the other day, he was having trouble mustering the same sense of excitement he had earlier in the week, when he won silver in the downhill and bronze in Super-G.
But he had one thing on his side: Unlike the 2006 Olympics in Torino, he knew he wanted to be here. Back then, he felt trapped by unrealistic expectations of five gold medals, by feeling like he was the “poster boy” for everything he didn’t like about the Olympics – corruption, abuse, and money, he said today.
“There’s a big difference between here and Torino. He was dreading Torino,” says Miller’s dad, Woody, after getting a big hug from the champion over the blue safety netting that barely kept fans from mobbing him. “I’m really glad that he got through it.”
Indeed, Miller seems like a different person at these Games – he’s here solely because he decided to be, because he felt he could inspire people with some breathtaking skiing, and because he does love about the Olympics – the inspiration, passion, and potential to change lives, he said. But that doesn’t make it easy.
“It’s incredibly mentally and physically demanding” to decide to really care about how you do, says Miller. “The first two races this week felt like 40 races. I was just emotionally drained.”
'One of the best skiers of all time'
Still, he found the inspiration deep down to pull out those skills honed on Cannon Mountain as a helmet-wearing young bullet, and ski like only Bode can. He was milliseconds from crashing in the downhill, said Rearick, but recovered to finish in sixth. But exhausted, hot, and hungry, he didn’t know how he could pull off a good slalom run.
“Then 10 seconds before the second race, I got that bouncy feeling, I honed in,” said Miller, who attacked the upper half of the course. “It was just free, going for 100 percent gas – that normally doesn’t work out for me that well in slalom.”
But he hung on to finish, besting repeat silver medalist Ivica Kostelic of Croatia, whose father set the slalom course, and slalom specialist Silvan Zurbriggen of Switzerland, who got bronze. When Aksel Lund Svindal, the No. 1 racer after the downhill portion, missed a slalom gate, the gold was Miller's.
“Bode has now done everything you can do in skiing,” said teammate Brandenburg. “He’s one of the best skiers of all time now, and no one can discredit that.”