KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — It has been 12 years since Bode Miller won his first Olympic medals, in Salt Lake City. He is 36 now and these are surely his last Olympic Games.
He is at once one of the most accomplished and one of the most complex figures ever to make his way across the American and international sports landscape.
No question he is the best ski racer the United States has ever produced. He has six Olympic medals, including a bronze in the super-G here. He has two overall World Cup titles, 33 World Cup wins, 78 World Cup podium finishes. He is also one of only five skiers to win World Cup races in five disciplines.
As Miller has often maintained, he doesn’t ski for the medals.
And it is here that the contradictions of Miller clash, often visibly, sometimes — as in Torino in 2006, when he wasn’t feeling it — to his great detriment. This can be no surprise. Great artists come layered with rippled currents of contradiction that play out to powerful effect and in different directions.
“It’s part of the story,” said Bill Marolt, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “When the final piece of art is finished, it will be a masterpiece.”
Marolt also said of Miller, “You talk about talented people. In my mind, in my eyes, he’s a phenomenon in the truest sense of the word. He has this incredible athletic ability. We say that a lot. But in his case, it’s really true. He has athletic talent, ability and at the same time he has got that will to focus in the moment and to make things happen.”
After the controversy, for instance, over his tears amid the super-G bronze, Miller was asked Wednesday after finishing in 20th place in the giant slalom about his emotional state.
He said, “I’m good. Those days don’t really seem to rock me too hard at the moment. It’s incredible. There’s a lot of stuff going on. Afterward, you move on. You focus. Bad result, good result. In skiing, the next day comes whether you are ready for it or not. I knew I had races I wanted to be prepared for and wanted to be ready for.”
To even try to understand Miller, and his station not just in skiing but in American and international sports, it helps to think of him, truly, as a performance artist. His canvas, as it were, is the mountain. He does things there that nobody — repeat, nobody — has done before and likely nobody will do again.
On the race course, he gives it 100 percent, always. He recovers from near-disasters like no one else.
As he said in winning that super-G bronze, “Missing opportunities, unfortunately, is just what it sounds like. It’s just missed opportunities. I don’t feel like it can compensate for something I missed in the past. The mistakes I’ve been making are costly. It cost me again today,” because but for an error on the last jump he might well have had gold.
“But, you know, they are mistakes born of intensity and focus and probably pushing too hard, which, you know, I have dealt with a lot in my career. If there is a fault I can accept, it’s that I push too hard in these big days, these big moments.
“I don’t like to think that I came down and skied 80 percent, even though on these days with the conditions like this, for me 80 percent would probably get me more medals. But it just doesn’t feel right. So I go out and ski as hard as I can and deal with the consequences.”
It has been that way since he was little.
The story of how Miller grew up in the backwoods in New Hampshire is well known. It need not be revisited. Except for this:
“I was sort of born into it,” he said here. “I had no babysitter or anything. I spent most of my childhood on the mountain, just doing my own thing. I think it was more the independence, the freedom I fell in love with. The skiing grew on me over time.”
The inherent contradiction, of course, is that skiing is rife with rules. Arcane rules. Incredibly minute details, in fact, that matter intensely in a sport in which hundredths of a second make the difference between winning and losing.
Miller, acknowledging Wednesday after that 20th spot, “It’s tough to have my last race here look like this,” quickly said nonetheless, “I feel good about where I’m at. I came back really strong,” from a knee problem that kept him out all last season. “I really did a lot of work. I put in the time. That’s a really positive feeling. Yeah, I feel like I did my best.”
It’s double knee problems that are keeping him from racing the slalom. He missed all of last season after enduring microfracture surgery on the left knee. He twisted the right knee in a bad crash in a GS race in St. Moritz, Switzerland, a week before the Olympic downhill.
On the one hand, Miller absolutely put in the time and got himself into peak condition.
On the other, after rocking the three downhill training runs — finishing first, sixth, first — Miller came in eighth on race day. The training runs had come on bright, sunny days. Race day went down in cloudier conditions. Miller said after the race that he was supposed to have had laser eye surgery before Sochi but somehow didn’t find time to fit it into his schedule: “I haven’t won in five years when the sun is not out,” he said.
At 36, the man couldn’t take care of that sort of essential business? Really?
Perhaps this is why Miller has always preferred to riff about skiing for the essence of it rather than chasing victory.
And yet — he for sure wants to win.
Let’s not kid ourselves.
Because, yes, no one can or should doubt he is in it for the transcendent moment when he tests himself against the mountain, when he willingly pushes fear to the side, throwing himself down a river of ice to see what might happen. It just might be great. This is why wherever he goes the crowds chant his name.
“We have all had our moments,” Marolt said. “As you see him now, today, what he has done not only for himself and his family but for our organization and the entire Olympic movement — we are sitting here in Russia and Bode Miller’s picture comes up on the screen and people cheer like hell. They know him and they love him. You don’t see that but for a very few athletes.
“And in my experience — none where he so captivates the public and the audience where they see his name and his face, and it happens everywhere.”
At the same time, let’s not be naive. When he is in the start gate, Miller is in it to win it.
Here he finally said so.
Before the downhill, his first race here, he said, “The idea is to be unbeatable,” adding a moment later, “I’m going to be ready. I want to win.”
After the giant slalom, his last race, he said, “Obviously, I feel like I was capable of more. My effort, my intensity, I think was as good as I could possibly put out there. It’s tough. Benny Raich,” the veteran Austrian skier, “said to me today, he said, ‘It’s always tough. It’s never easy out there.’
“The Olympics is always a super-challenging situation because you come in, you want to do everything you can but only one guy wins. That’s, you know, I really feel like I did what I could. I came out with a medal. So I’m happy.”