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March 01, 2010
The brilliant and often baffling Bode Miller roared from behind in the combined to win his first gold ever, leading the U.S. Alpine team to a record number of medals
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March 01, 2010

American Flyers

The brilliant and often baffling Bode Miller roared from behind in the combined to win his first gold ever, leading the U.S. Alpine team to a record number of medals

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A long time ago, Samuel Bode Miller was just fast. This was before he "retired" last March at age 31, before he ran his own international ski team out of a motor home for two years (because he didn't like the way U.S. ski team officials were running theirs) and before he failed to win any medals at the 2006 Olympics (because, he says now, he wasn't inspired to do so). It was before he began routinely humbling Austrians and Swiss and whoever else pulled on a race bib, before he began turning postrace press conferences into complex and often contradictory soliloquies on the relative values of victory and daring, and before some of his early coaches tried to change his instinctive approach to skiing to make him more like everybody else.

It was before all that. "He was always thinking about how to get down the mountain faster than anybody else," his high school ski coach, Chip Cochrane, told SI eight years ago. And that was the fundamental truth.

Miller was fast when he was a little kid bombing down trails at Cannon Mountain, near his family's home in Franconia, N.H. "This tiny guy, just flying," family friend John Ritzo once said. He was fast when, at age 18, he put on the first generation of shaped skis in 1996 and won three Junior Olympic titles as an unknown. He was fast when he flamed out of the 1998 Olympic slalom in Japan and hiked gates to complete the experience. He was fast when he won two silver medals at the 2002 Olympics. "I've never seen anybody ski so fast," Norwegian great Kjetil Andre Aamodt said back then, after narrowly beating Miller for the gold medal in the combined event. "He's revolutionized the way of skiing."

Miller was fast when he won the overall World Cup title in 2005 and then again in 2008, and fast when he won more career World Cup races (32) than any U.S. skier of either gender. But the speed was always lost in the haze of discovering whatever else Miller was besides fast: ingenious, petulant, drunk. "My career will be judged however it's judged," Miller said just last week, punctuating his assessment with the classic Miller shrug that says definitively, And I don't care (although it's always possible that he does).

When the week ended, Miller was in possession of his third medal of the Vancouver Games (and a U.S.-record-breaking fifth Alpine overall) and the first gold of his career, a dramatic victory in Sunday's two-run (downhill-slalom) super-combined event in the mountains of Whistler, B.C. Miller was the most prolific member of a U.S. team that through six Alpine events had won eight medals, a record haul for any Games. (The previous high was five, in 1984, although that American team won three golds and this one had just two through Sunday, with four events remaining.) And Miller was scheduled to ski both giant slalom (Tuesday) and slalom (Saturday) this week.

Lindsey Vonn, 25, who bore most of the pre-Olympic hype, won a gold in downhill and a bronze in Super G; Julia Mancuso, 25, got silvers in downhill and super combined; and Andrew Weibrecht, 24, won an unexpected bronze in Super G. The performance was starkly different from Turin in '06, when the U.S. took just two medals, golds by Ted Ligety in combined and Mancuso in giant slalom.

But of all the medals won on Whistler, Miller's Sunday gold was the most resonant. He was seventh in the morning's downhill, further back than he expected. As he stood in the start house, facing a steep slope and 69 gates, Miller needed to be fast again and he needed to be fast again in slalom, the most artistic and technically demanding of the Alpine disciplines. It is the one in which he first achieved broad success, but also the one in which he has struggled competitively for years. (Three days earlier Miller had crashed spectacularly in slalom training.) "He loves slalom, that's how he broke in," says Forest Carey, a U.S. ski team coach and a friend of Miller's for nearly two decades.

He was back to the beginning, once again trying to get down the mountain faster than everyone else.

They all get back to the beginning, because ski racing is not merely a sport, it is also a culture and a lifestyle. It is endless early mornings, long drives, cold feet and waiting until weather clears. When Vonn won the downhill on Feb. 17, she found herself thinking back more than a dozen years to a summer training camp on the glacier at Oregon's Mount Hood with youth coach Erich Sailer. "Pouring rain, we had to hike up to the course through the mud," said Vonn. "And I loved every minute of it."

Vonn had come to Canada as the U.S. face of the Games, a threat to medal in four events and a solid favorite for gold in two. Then she was compromised by a shin injury 10 days before opening ceremonies, a news development that focused additional attention on her. She cried for 30 minutes when the downhill ended and ran on dwindling emotional reserves the rest of the week, through her crash in the slalom portion of the super combined and her bronze medal run in the Super G.

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