As American Andrew Weibrecht crossed the finish line in the men's super-G Sunday, he took a calm moment to be grateful for what he had just done.
He had not yet looked at the scoreboard or at his celebrating coaches, nor had he yet registered the increased volume of the crowd. He didn't know if he had finished fifth or 25th. But he knew one thing: For the first time in years, he had skied his best when it mattered most.
Because of his race, Weibrecht will take home a silver medal from this Olympics, with Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud taking gold and American Bode Miller and Canadian Jan Hudac tying for bronze. It was Jansrud's third medal of this Olympics (gold in the downhill and bronze in the combined), while Miller, at 36, became the oldest alpine medalist in Olympic history. All that we can understand.
But at a press conference hours later, Weibrecht was still struggling to explain that moment at the finish line, where he didn't know he had won anything, yet, in his heart, knew what he had won regardless of what the scoreboard said. Because more than medals or money, it is that feeling that made him fight through four surgeries and three lost years on the World Cup circuit to continue to throw himself down mountains at speeds that scare even him.
If Weibrecht hadn't won silver, perhaps this would seem a clichéd coping mechanism: "I didn't ski well, but I was happy with my run." The tendency is to roll our eyes and flip to the hockey, where American might actually win a medal.
But on a day like Sunday, when Weibrecht speaks and the medal sounds almost like a bonus, the attitude of an Olympian comes into clearer focus. The margins of victory at the Olympics can be so small, and so many things can be out of your control – from conditions to pairings to equipment failures – the only true gauge of "success" is often what is within the athlete's own head.
And perhaps nowhere is that more true than alpine skiing.
Imagine if Augusta National cut its greens differently for every pairing or baseball only allowed each player one at bat.
That's alpine skiing.
Weather can change the course midway through a race. Some conditions favor some skiers. Some courses favor some skiers. And, at least in the speed events, you only get one trip down the hill, so make one big mistake, and you're off the podium. There are no bottom-of-the-ninth rallies.
So when Weibrecht arrives at the bottom of the hill, in some ways, he knows more than the clock. On Sunday, however, both were in agreement, and Weibrecht was left searching for words.
"This is probably one of the most incredible moments of my life. It has been such a difficult four years with all the surgeries, [so] to come back and to be able to throw it down at the perfect time, it's just.... I don't even have words for it."
Even at his best, Weibrecht probably skis "two good races" out of more than a dozen in a good season, he said. And since he won bronze in this same event in Vancouver, he has not had anything approaching a good season. Those four years have included four surgeries (two on his shoulders, two on his ankles) and doubts too numerous to count. He thought about quitting. Every time he came back, he never found that moment he found Sunday.
"I came back from three injuries and there was no affirmation" like his performance in Sunday's race. The doubts grew that he could ever again find a run like today's. "It got tougher and tougher."
He was beaten up. And he was, at least on some level, scared.
"I didn't think I could get injured until I did get injured," he said. "It took really letting it go and saying, 'I can get through this and be healthy at the end of the day.' "
For the best racers, that feeling of knowing you skied a good race comes more often. But not as often as failure. The best skier in the world, Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal, has won five of 16 races this season on the World Cup, making the podium in another three. At the Olympics, he has yet to win a medal.
"The best guy in the world wins [only] a couple races," said Weibrecht. "You've got to learn how to manage disappointment."
Miller has had his share of that this Olympics. He came in skiing as well as he has in years, and he seemed to announce his intent by blowing the doors off the downhill course in training runs. But on race day, he came in eighth in the downhill and sixth in the combined. The slushy conditions that developed here last week don't play to his strengths, but he refused to back off his aggressive style.
"In conditions like this, I'd probably get the best results if I skied 80 percent," he said. "But I feel terrible when I ski that way, so I end up making a lot of mistakes and that can cost a lot of time and races."
He made mistakes Sunday. Unlike Weibrecht, he came to the finish feeling like he'd just wrestled with a buffalo and didn't think his time would stand up. It did, for bronze, but barely.
"Today it was really a struggle, and that's a different kind of achievement," he said.
That gives him six career Olympic alpine medals, second to Norwegian Kjetil Andre Aamodt's eight, and the somewhat faint hope for another in the giant slalom Wednesday.
"I come into the giant slalom with something to prove," he said.
Meanwhile, Jansrud describes himself as "floating and feeling great." Never mind that he's never before outshone countryman Svindal like this. The Olympics are here to remind us that alpine skiing is a fickle thing. And so long as that feeling is out there on top of the mountain for him, Jansrud's going to come down fast – and know it.
"So far this Olympics has gone better than I hoped."