KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- One U.S. ski racer has long been famous, the other has been a footnote. One of them lacked only a punctuation mark on one of the most accomplished careers in the history of the sport, the other sought to prove that the best day of his athletic life -- four years ago at the Vancouver Winter Olympics -- wasn’t just a bronze medal fluke. One of them is old in athlete’s years and knows that the end is very near; the other is younger, but nonetheless feared it might be near. Both ski straight and fast, daring the mountain to take them.
Bode Miller, 36, came to the Sochi Olympics not just rebuilt (he underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee in December of 2012), but also reborn (lighter, fitter and less petulant than at any time in his long career; and married, too, due to his PDAs in the finish area). He seemed very nearly the same the skier who had won five Olympic medals and 33 World Cup races, both more than any U.S. male racer in history. Yet here in the Caucasus Mountains 30 miles from the Olympic flame, he had made a critical mistake as the favorite in the Feb. 9 downhill and finished eighth; and five days later took sixth in this super combined. His chances at further medals, any of which would make him the oldest Olympic alpine medalist in history dimmed with each passing disappointment.
Andrew Weibrecht, eight years younger than Miller and far less accomplished (zero World Cup wins), came to Russia at the end of four years in a deep hole. He won a bronze medal in a stunning Super-G race in Vancouver (Miller took the silver ahead of him), but in the years since had suffered four major injuries, never finished better than 10th in a World Cup race (and that happened just once) and watched his place on the U.S. Ski team imperiled by lack of production, and had to pay $21,000 of his expenses out of his own pocket. He was often fast, but undisciplined and unreliable. Weibrecht barely made the Olympic team.
"For a while," said Sasha Rearick, head coach of the U.S. men’s team, "we didn’t know if we were going to be able to take him."
The two men raced Sunday morning's Olympic Super-G race 25 minutes apart under a rising sun on snow rapidly turning soft, and they would finish with medals around their neck, validation at their feet and a swirl of emotions imposing perspective on their work. Weibrecht won a wildly improbable silver medal behind Kjetil Jansrud of Norway -- “For sure, I would never have predicted this,” said Italian racer Christof Innerhofer, who has won two medals at these games. “No, no, no, no. Not this, not today” -- and Miller tied for the bronze with Jan Hudec of Canada, just .02 seconds ahead of fifth-place finish Otmar Striedinger of Austria.
“It was probably the most emotional day of ski racing I’ve ever had,” said Weibrecht, who turned 28 years old six days before the Super-G and whose teammates call him the “War Horse,” for his wild, charging style. “After the all issues and troubles I’ve had, to be able to come and have a really strong result like this, it reminds me that all the work that I did coming back from the injuries and dealing through all the hard times, it’s all worth it. It all makes sense.”
Miller, whose presence in the competitive mix at these Olympics is a measure of his rare talent and a freshly found late-career dedication, had often decried the importance of what he would derisively call results. (It was the ethereal quality of this skiing that was important), made no secret of his lust for a medal in these, almost certainly his last Games. “I put in a lot of work,” said Miller, and this was a hard year, a lot of effort coming back to get fit and get ready. I was happy to have it be on the right side of the 100ths, because some days medals don’t matter, and today was one of the ones where it does matter.”
Miller now has six Olympic medals, two more than any U.S. Olympic skier of either gender (Julia Mancuso has four), and tied with Janica Kostelic of Croatia and Anja Paerson of Sweden behind Kjetil-Andre Aamodt of Norway (eight) on the all-time Olympic skiing list. Also, he is now tied with speed skater Bonnie Blair among U.S. Winter Olympians in any sports, trailing only short track speed skater Apolo Ohno. (Presented with these numbers, Miller said, “I feel old,” but then went on to praise Aamodt and his countryman Lasse Kjus, who has five medals. Aamodt had been the previous oldest medalist, at age 34 in 2006).
Yet for all of this historical validation of Miller, it was Weibrecht’s performance that rocked the alpine world. (It also helped awaken the U.S. Team from a week-long slumber. U.S. racers had won just one medal in five events before Sunday; now they have three in six events. A drought has instantly turned to a sort of momentum ahead of this week’s giant slalom and slalom races).
The Super-G is a hybrid race that splits the difference between downhill and giant slalom, best described as a downhill with more and sharper turns. Miller skied No. 13 from the start house and raced into the lead by .13 seconds despite yet another costly mistake near the bottom of the course. “I ended up costing myself a half-second or sixth-tenths,” estimated Miller. His lead lasted eight racers, before Jansrud, who had taken bronze in the downhill here, blasted home .53 ahead of Miller. Next down the piste was Hudec, who tied Miller. (It wound up being only the sixth medal tie in alpine history, a statistic that would be more weighty had there not been one four days earlier in the women’s downhill). The next six skiers didn’t threaten the podium.
Weibrecht had drawn bib No. 29, which most racers assumed would be severely disadvantageous, because rising temperatures and previous racers would soften and slow the track. “The course was probably skiing seventh-tenths of a second slower when [Weibrecht] ran than when the race started,” said Miller.
Yet within the sport, there is a healthy respect for Weibrecht as having a puncher’s chance in any race, because of his ability to ignore self-preservation -- “His style is crazy,” says Innerhofer -- and lay down breakneck splits for short sections of a course. In the week leading to the race, U.S. teammate Ted Ligety, the reigning world champion in Super-G and giant slalom, said of Weibrecht, “He’s the fastest skier in the world for 20 seconds [at a time].” Like the distance runner who races to the lead only to be caught at the finish, there is always the possibility that someday he won’t come back. Likewise, there is the possibility, however slight, that the War Horse will make it all the way to bottom. “He’s such a better skier than his results show,” says Miller.
“He’s always been a tremendous skier,” says Rearick.
This is why Miller and Jansrud sat next to each other in the finish area and squirmed as Weibrecht loaded up. “I said [to Jansrud], ‘There’s a good chance that he wins the race right now," said Miller. "[Jansrud] said to me, 'You’re not even kidding.'"
Weibrecht dove into the top section of the course, opening up a lead of .35 seconds on Jansrud at the first timing split and .33 at the second. The grandstand crowd roared in shock. Jansrud said, “Weibrecht scared the s--- out of me; my legs were a little jelly there for a minute.”
Ligety watched from the bottom of the hill after finishing a desultory 14th. “Watching him off the top, I was pretty nervous,” said Ligety. “He was hammering. Really, really amazing skiing. I was super nervous because he has the propensity to make mistakes, but he held it together all the way to the bottom.”
Weibrecht dumped some speed at the bottom of the course, which may have cost him the gold medal, but also may have allowed to remain upright. He hit the timing line .30 behind Jansrud, but .23 clear of Miller and Hudec. He put both hands on his helmet, seemingly in shock. Back home in Lake Placid, at 1:45 a.m., his parents, watched the stream of the race at their home near the Mirror Lake Inn, a resort hotel they own. Weibrecht had told them not to bother coming to Russia, not because he didn’t believe he could win, but because logistics in the Olympic area made it unlikely they would be able to spend much time together.
But also, there was doubt. There has been doubt since Vancouver. “The last four years have been really tough,” said Weibrecht after the race. “There have been times when I’ve had to evaluate whether this is what I want to really do.” The he paused, laughed, and said, “As recently as yesterday.”
Four years ago Weibrecht, who grew up racing on the gnarly ice of Whiteface Mountain near his home in Lake Placid, came to Vancouver most famous for a daredevil run from the 53rd start position to 10th place in a World Cup downhill race at Beaver Creek, Colorado in 2007. It was one of the wildest runs in recent World Cup history, a balls-out, devil-may-care two minutes on the ragged edge of disaster. One of coaches for a non-U.S. national team nicknamed the 5-foot-6, 180-pound Weibrecht “The Wombat,” after that run, roughly akin to a calling a football player the Honey Badger and for the same reasons. It’s not always good to be ski racer nicknamed both the War Horse and the Wombat.
He laid down one of those rare perfect runs in Vancouver. Yet what might have launched a brilliant lucrative career instead began four seasons of frustration. Shortly after the Olympics he injured his right shoulder and left ankle in a crash; both required surgery. When he came back a year later, he injured his left shoulder and needed surgery for that. Then the right ankle. In 2013, was nagged by a flu virus. His best finish between Vancouver and Sochi was another 10th at Beaver Creek, in December of 2011. Often his finishes rose into the 30s and 40s. U.S. team officials demoted him to the "B" team and asked to pay $21,000 of his annual expenses ("A" team athletes are fully supported).
But this year, slowly he regained his health and again found moments of speed. Still, it was possible he might not have been selected to the Olympic team. “I could see, from the coaches; perspective, how they might have put on a different guy,” said Weibrecht. Two weeks before the Games he trained with Ligety in Austria and beat Ligety in Super-G runs while learning from Ligety’s masterful giant slalom technique. His confidence grew every slightly.
None of this fully explains what took place on Sunday morning for a man who nearly walked away. “There are only so many times you can get kicked,” he said, “before you start to feel it.” None of this explains how he has twice stood up fast at the finish when the stakes were highest and the pressure most punishing. None of this explains the distance from almost gone to shimmering silver in the mountain sun.