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Gold medal proves Bode has finally come full circle

But Miller's physical state has never been as important as his emotional one, and in that area, he has himself straightened out. He has been, by turns, prickly, playful, obstinate, idealistic and unfocused during his career --"crazy" as Austrian skier Benjamin Raich summarized it on Sunday -- but at these Olympic Games, Miller's head has been in a good place, which may be the biggest reason he found himself finishing in first place for the first time in his never-a-dull-moment Olympic career, winning the gold medal in the super-combined. He did it with a dynamic slalom run that propelled him from seventh after the downhill portion of the competition, providing the crowning glory -- so far -- in what has been a highly successful Olympic performance by the U.S. ski team.

Miller, 32, is a complicated guy, to say the least, and that didn't change after his victory on Sunday. How many other athletes, when asked what winning Olympic gold means to them, would give Miller's answer? "Not that much," he said. "What makes me happy is to ski the way I skied today. The medal doesn't have that much to do with it. I would have been just as happy if I had skied this well but finished fourth. In fact, if I hadn't skied well but somehow won, I probably would have resented the medal a little bit."

That's not to say Miller wasn't thrilled with his performance. "The way I executed, the way I skied, is something I'll be proud of for the rest of my life," he said. It's just that winning his first Olympic gold -- and the fifth Olympic medal of his career -- was something that he knew was within his reach. "Not to be arrogant, but the super-combined is a pretty easy event for me," he had said at the beginnng of the Games. "If I ski anywhere near my potential in either of those events, it's rare that I would be off the podium."

Of course, there have been times when Miller hasn't quite done that, most notably at the 2006 Games in Turin, when he was considered a contender for five medals and limped away with nothing but the general disdain of U.S. fans who felt that he had partied away his chance for Olympic glory. "I think I was the most hated athlete in the history of the Olympics," he says. "People were basing their opinions on information that wasn't accurate."

But Miller, ever the contrarian, isn't buying into the easy storyline that Sunday's gold somehow redeems the Turin debacle or that it gives him revenge against those who bashed him and said he was more interested in Olympic nightlife than Olympic medals. "Revenge?" he said. "Who would I get revenge against? Myself? I just wanted to ski to the limits of my ability. It's not about revenge or redemption or any of those things."

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On Sunday, Miller left himself little margin for error after a less than stellar downhill run which put him .76 seconds off the lead. But even on that run he displayed some of his remarkable talent. "He made a fantastic recovery on a tunnel jump," said U.S. ski team coach Sasha Rearick. "A lesser skier would have taken the fall for sure. It was a small thing and you might not catch it unless you're looking closely, but it takes a special talent to do what he did. That could have put him totally out of contention."

Miller knew he would need a special slalom to make up for the downhill, which seemed unlikely considering he was still feeling less than his best after the downhill. "Maybe subconsciously I was saving something for the slalom," he said. "Somehow, right before the start of it I felt a rush of energy kick in. It felt awesome to have that come on right when I needed it."

And so the re-energized Miller went for it, slicing down the mountain on his edges, treading the thin line between maximum speed and total wipeout. "He's got cojones," teammate Ted Ligety said. That kind of daring is nothing new for Miller, but it had earned him more than a few slalom crashes in recent years. "I was skiing very free and going for it 100 percent," he said. "Normally that hasn't worked out that well for me, but today it did."

The daring run vaulted him into first, and when his last serious challenger, Dominik Paris of Italy, crashed off the course and didn't finish, the gold belonged to Miller, with a combined time of two minutes, 44.92 seconds, .33 seconds ahead of Ivica Kostelic of Croatia. Silvan Zurbriggen of Switzerland took the bronze. Ligety finished fifth, part of a strong overall showing for the U.S. team. His teammates Will Brandenburg and Andrew Weibrecht were 10th and 11th. "I'm pretty happy with my performance, but fifth place is tough because it means you came so close to a medal," Ligety said. "I think they should give wooden spoons or something to the fourth and fifth guys. But the [upcoming giant slalom] is a better event for me, so I've got something to look forward to."

And what does Miller have to look forward to? At 32, he is now one of the most decorated Winter Olympians in U.S. history, and he has redeemed himself (even if he doesn't see it that way) after the disappointment of Turin. He has also come full circle -- after being known as a great slalom skier early in his career, he branched out into other events and now has re-established his superiority in the slalom. His career arc seems complete, but on the other hand, "I've never had greater peace of mind," he says. So perhaps this isn't the beginning of the end but rather the end of the beginning, the start of a new phase of his career. "I don't know," Miller said, smiling. "I feel pretty old."

Or maybe he said, "gold."