WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Here was a familiar scene: Bode Miller standing benignly on skis at the side of race course, poles dragging in the snow, a look of vague disappointment on his face. He is wearing a racing helmet and speed suit, but he is as still as the pine trees behind him and the plastic gates that line the mountainside, all dressed up with no place to go.
This was on Saturday morning in the first of two slalom runs, the final alpine skiing event of the Vancouver Games. Miller kicked out of the start house 17th in a massive field of 102 starters (only slightly more than 30 of them medal threats), but cleared fewer than five gates in the race before hooking one with the tip of his right ski, ending his race just 8 seconds after it started.
In a vacuum, this tableau was reminiscent of four years ago in Sestriere (like Whistler, a picturesque mountain resort far from the Olympic center), where Miller -- by acclimation the most talented ski racer in the world and one of the most talented in history -- famously failed to medal in five events and failed to finish both super-G and slalom and was disqualified from the first run of slalom combined). He was the image of baleful indifference to the Olympic Games; even if he cared, it looked like he didn't.
(It's instructive that here at these Games Miller would describe his emotional approach to those races in Sestriere as "cold and clinical." It was analysis that came four years too late, but that doesn't diminish its basic accuracy).
Yet those races in 2006, and the off-snow drama that accompanied them, now seem like 40 years ago, not just four. Miller's ski-out Saturday in slalom was nothing more than a postscript to the most successful Olympic performance by any U.S. male ski racer in history, with a full set of gold (combined), silver (super-G) and bronze (downhill) medals.
Asked after the race if Miller had re-written his "ending," (whether it is, indeed, his ending is still not known; keep reading), U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick said, "He did it. You guys are going to write the story, but Bode came out and did what he said he was going to do. He fought through injuries [knee and ankle, that we know about], he kept battling away and he came here and took the energy of the Games this time as a positive thing. It was his inspiration to put down runs that were world class."
As far as writing the story of Miller's legacy, I wrote my version of it here, after Miller won his bronze medal in the downhill on Monday, Feb. 15, the first day of Olympic ski racing (after a weekend of postponements). He is the best American male ski racer in history, and now he has the hardware to prove it. He met history halfway and deserves every ounce of acclaim that history returns.
And he did, indeed, compete and perform with the same joy that he demonstrated in his early years as an international racer, emotion that was entirely lacking four years ago. "To come to these Games and perform the way I did, the feel the kind of enjoyment from skiing and from expressing myself on my skis the way I did is phenomenal," said Miller.
"[The experience] is unique and incredible," he said. "That race the other day [his gold medal in super combined on Sunday Feb. 21] ... I'll remember that feeling and my place in that whole picture really clearly for a long time. I used to race very similar to that, with that kind of heart and intensity, all the time when I was younger. To have that come back and be inspired at this Games, I appreciate it a lot more than now than I did then. [It's] unique to find that kind of energy and to go above and beyond what you could normally achieve on your own because you're part of something else. That was really cool. I think that was really what I needed."
Of course, with Miller, grey areas always remain.
He talked often in Whistler of the difference between 2006 and 2010, but never fully explained what the difference was. The obvious answer is that he was under enormous pressure four years ago (exacerbated by controversy long before the Games; does everyone remember the "Skiing wasted" tempest from 60 Minutes?), and under very little pressure this time. Most of that was on Lindsey Vonn, and she delivered with a gold medal in the downhill and bronze in super-G.
Also, Miller made a decision in September not only to return to ski racing, but also to return to the U.S. Ski Team after operating his own independent racing operation for two years. He has often made vague references to "the situation" being right on the team, but never outlined exactly what the situation was. Saturday was no different in that regard. "I don't really want to get into that," he said, of conversations with Rearick. "We talked a bunch."
Rearick was more expansive. "He and I worked together," Rearick said. "We sat down and said, 'Hey, what do we want to do?' I said, 'What's most important for me is that we keep a tight family that supports and challenges each other. Do you want to come into that?' He said, 'Yeah, I want that part. I think you've built a good program.'"
Rearick offered this take on Miller's side of the bargain: "He wanted to be pushed and challenged. He was like, 'Who's going to challenge me? Who's going to hold me accountable for working hard? And the coaching staff did that."
Miller, 32, is the oldest racer on the U.S. Ski Team of either gender. The team itself is undergoing a transformation to younger racers like Andrew Weibrecht, whose bronze medal in the super-G was a major surprise. Rearick said, as far back as November, that the young skiers showed no intimidation at Miller's resume and tried to beat him every day.
(Neither Miller not the U.S. Team has addressed the financial side of the equation, but as a member of the alpine 'A' team, Miller receives significant funding for travel and training. Those were costs he paid on his own -- with considerable assistance from sponsors -- in 2008 and 2009. The down side was that Miller had to sleep in hotels, rather than in his own recreational vehicle, as he did for several seasons, even as member of national team. "I was staying in hotels again," Miller said. "I had to deal with a lot of adversity that I haven't had to deal with for the last bunch of years."
That assessment plays as overly dramatic, but it might be a factor as Miller makes decisions going forward. Rearick said, "He's already talking to me about ideas and where we want to go. He's passionate about skiing, I'm passionate about skiing. We'll continue to work together."
After his gold medal in the super combined, earned with a daring slalom run pulled from his past, Miller said, "I'm 32. I feel pretty old."
When asked Saturday where he would be a year from now, he said, "I don't know. We'll see. I have no idea."
The energy that Miller found in Whistler is much rarer in the weekly grind of the World Cup, which stretches from October to mid-March. By not starting until late September this year, Miller risked what U.S. assistant coach Mike Kenney (also Miller's uncle) called "marginal" fitness. But he was also like NFL players who skip parts of training camp in quasi-holdouts to shorten a long season.
"It's a matter of figuring out a way to translate that into World Cup," said Miller. "That will be the deciding factor. It's not easy to do, because a lot of why I skied the way I did and the feelings I had were based on the whole circumstance surrounding the Olympics and all the energy and all the enthusiasm. There is that to a degree in the World Cup, but it's a whole different ballgame."
There is no guessing what Miller might do. His head is forever full of grandiose plans, many of which never get past the six inches of oxygen beyond his lips. His analyses of skiing -- and life -- can run down innumerable tributaries until they terminate far from where they began, entertaining and inscrutable. He delights in contrary speech.
One thing is certain: He speaks most clearly on a pair of skis. The longer he races, the better for his sport. But he owes nothing. The slate is clean.