Flanking Svindal were two U.S. skiers, silver medalist Bode Miller to his right and bronze medalist Andrew Weibrecht to his left. On the surface, the two Americans could not be more different: Miller is 6-foot-2 and Weibrecht is 5-6. Miller is relatively slender for a skier (which is not to say that he is slender), and Weibrecht is built like Maurice Jones-Drew. Miller has brown hair and Weibrecht has blond. Most pointedly, Miller is 32 years old and Weibrecht turned 24 on Feb. 10. When Miller won two silver medals at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Weibrecht was a fast 16-year-old, still a year away from being added to the U.S. developmental team.
Now they are sharing in what might soon be the best Olympic performance in the history of the U.S. skiing. Their two-three finish in the super-G gave the U.S. six Alpine medals in just four events, more than in any previous Olympics. That doesn't make it an obvious call: Team USA won one fewer Alpine medal in Sarajevo in 1984, but three of those were gold and two were silver. Here, the tally is one gold, three silver and two bronze with six events remaining.
On the individual level, Miller took the lead in his battle with Julia Mancuso to be the most decorated racer in U.S. Olympic history. With two medals in these Games, he now has four overall (three silvers and a bronze). Mancuso has three (a gold and two silvers), but she races on Saturday morning in the super-G, where her performances here suggest she'll be in the hunt for medals, and where Lindsey Vonn will be the favorite. Miller will ski the combined on Sunday and still has both slaloms to come.
Miller is also making history in a broader sense. With his silver in super-G, he joins Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt as the only male skiers in Olympic history with medals in four disciplines. His victory yesterday was classic Miller: He skied on long, stiff downhill skis (which are faster on straight sections, but not designed to turn easily), despite the technical difficulty of the course. "I wanted to make up time somewhere,'' said Miller. "I was really working to get those downhill skis to turn.''
It is difficult to nail down how the U.S. became so dominant so suddenly. U.S. Ski Team president Bill Marolt credits a sustained corporate effort over a period of years. That's certainly valid. But something else is clearly at work, and perhaps it's best demonstrated by something that Mancuso did on Thursday: After she finished an unexpectedly good slalom run to nail down a combined medal, she fell to her back and began pumping her legs as if riding a bicycle toward the heavens.
It was this moment that Miller recalled after his silver when he said, "[U.S. racers] want to come across the line, and they want to kick their feet like Julia did."
Success in any sport depends on technical and organizational elements, in addition to pure physical ability. But there's also an emotional or spiritual element -- or whatever phrase applies to lying in the snow kicking ski boots at the blue sky. Miller has spent most of his career tossing around the word "inspirational" in alternately instructive and exasperating ways. He would sometimes miss the podium and explain that his skiing was nevertheless "inspirational."
Miller left the team last March, disinterested not only in his own skiing, but in that of his teammates and opponents. "I was pointing the finger at everyone else," said Miller. "Saying that this was not the level of skiing that we should be putting out there. I didn't think people were taking the risks, I didn't think people were skiing with the heart that skiing needs, and that was 100 percent including myself."
Then he came back in September. Unlike the previous two years (2008 and '09), when he had run his own independent program, he rejoined the U.S. ski team, immediately becoming its oldest member. In the likes of Weibrecht he found some of that inspiration he sought, and the young skiers found it in Miller as well. The mix is impossible to measure, except to say that it seems to be working.
Miller has told Weibrecht and several other young races on the team about his World Cup and Olympic experiences. "He's been a huge asset," says Weibrecht. "He's been through all of this, and he understands the whole system, what it takes to be on this level. He's been really helpful."
Before the season began, Weibrecht explained that Miller had even taken to slowing down some of his famously hurried pre-race inspections to show Weibrecht the finer points on some of the World Cup downhill courses. "I always heard how Bode inspects really fast," said Weibrecht in November, "but he took the time to show me things, and it was incredibly valuable." Weibrecht also noted that Scott Macartney, a veteran racer who did not make the Olympic team, also spent a lot of time showing him courses.
After finishing third yesterday, in a race where places two through five were separated by just .05 of a second, Weibrecht was enthralled by his presence on the podium. "To be in the company of Aksel and Bode, in any race," Weibrecht said, "is pretty awesome."
The effect of Weibrecht's generation on Miller is a little more difficult to pinpoint. The older racers on the U.S. team call Weibrecht, a ball of muscle who grew up in Lake Placid and raced on gnarly Adirondack ice on Whiteface Mountain (experience that he feels helped him here), "War Horse."
Why? "Because he only knows one speed," says 29-year-old Marco Sullivan, who skied in both the downhill and super-G and finished 23rd on Friday. (He missed a gate and was DQ'd in the downhill.) "He goes hard, all the time."
The last gifted, young U.S. skier to whom that description was applied was: Miller. And while Miller tends to frame analysis through his own personal prism, he understands the comparison. "Andrew goes really hard," said Miller Thursday. "And he makes a ton of mistakes."
Miller made a ton of mistakes, and he was criticized for them. But now he says he recalls his crashes and his failures to finish with great joy (really), and he has tried to convey that joy to Weibrecht. This is the way Miller put it: "When he hears me go back and reflect on the 150 or 200, whatever, World Cups where I've crashed or gone out or blown leads and looked back on those with nothing but fondness and appreciation, that gives him some insight into the good side of racing with your heart."
If the young U.S. racers have learned the ropes from having Miller around, they have shown him no love in training or racing. "They're getting after him," U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick said in November, sentiment he reiterated on Friday. "[The young racers] have gone out and challenged him."
We are seeing a different Miller at these Games than we have seen in years. "He's been very happy and very relaxed," said his father, Woody, after the silver in the super-G. "It's night and day between Torino and now."
Miller's downhill bronze was the medal that began this Alpine onslaught. He said it was a performance that it was about the team, and not just about him. There was cause for skepticism at the time, but not anymore. It really is about the team.