IT'S TEMPTING to suggest that Bode Miller came to Sochi for his fifth Olympics a changed man at 36, a newly passionate athlete making a last bid to burnish his legend and embrace his sport before his considerable talents were too far gone. The greater truth is that Miller has been a changed man in each of his Olympic appearances across 16 years: an unknown 20-year-old in 1998, a fresh-faced racing savant with a wild backstory in 2002, a petulant party boy in '06 and a comeback surprise in '10. Never twice the same. What endures is an almost desperate passion for the skiing, which has never wavered.
Yet it has always been painful for Miller to admit that he relishes winning races. Through 33 World Cup victories (more than any other U.S. male racer), two World Cup overall titles and now six Olympic medals, Miller has often stuck stubbornly to the contention that skiing dynamically is more important to him than what he derisively calls results. It has been a flawless dodge: If he wins, he accepts the accolades. If he doesn't win, that's O.K., because winning isn't important. It has always been a little bit of a ruse, one that he might never fully let go.
But on Sunday afternoon in the Caucasus Mountains he came close. Miller tied for the Super-G bronze medal with Jan Hudec of Canada. The medal was laden with superlatives: Miller is now the oldest Alpine medalist in Olympic history (two years older than Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway when he won the Super-G in 2006). His six medals are two more than the total for any other U.S. ski racer and tie him with long-track speedskater Bonnie Blair for the second most by any American Winter Olympian. (Short-track speedskater Apolo Ohno won eight.) Afterward Miller said this, a half-admission of his need: "Some days medals don't matter, and today was one of the ones where it does matter."
He brought plenty of fresh narrative baggage to Russia. In the previous 16 months he had lost a brother (Chelone, who died last spring of an apparent seizure at 29), gained a wife (beach volleyball player Morgan Beck) and become embroiled in an emotional and public custody battle for his year-old son (his second child, neither with Beck). In Sochi he was skiing on a left knee that had been rebuilt through microfracture surgery in early 2012, an uncertain grab at prolonging his career. But remarkably, for much of the pre-Olympic season he was skiing nearly as fast as he had a decade earlier.
But Olympic ski racing is cruelly fickle. Miller dominated downhill training runs in Sochi but made a costly mistake on race day and finished eighth. "I would have loved to win, obviously," he said after that race. "This is the premier event and it's something I've thought about quite a bit." Likewise, he bobbled the downhill portion of the super combined event and finished sixth. His opportunities dwindled; Miller skis all five disciplines, but he was a long shot in the giant slalom and the slalom. He needed the Super-G.
He raced into second place by just .02 and then watched U.S. teammate Andrew Weibrecht, 28, hurtle down a course softened by rising temperatures and into a mind-boggling silver medal from the disadvantageous 29th starting position. Weibrecht had won a bronze medal behind Miller's silver four years ago in Vancouver, but in the years since hadn't finished any better than 10th in a World Cup race. His results had fallen off so badly that U.S. ski officials dropped him to the B team and required him to contribute at least $14,000 of his own money toward his training expenses to remain a part of the program. Weibrecht's parents, Ed and Lisa, watched his silver medal run in the wee hours from their home in Lake Placid, where Weibrecht learned to race on the icy surface of Whiteface Mountain.
"To be able to come and have a really strong result like this," said Weibrecht after the race, "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."
It is a sentiment that Miller could understand. Long after the race he would call the skiing during his medal-winning performance "disappointing" and the worst of his six medals. He would also call the result "a miracle." He should know that history will remember only the miracle.
NOELLE PIKUS-PACE AND MATT ANTOINE
Pikus-Pace (below), 31, a mother of two who was star-crossed in 2005 (injured by a stray bobsled before the Games) and '10 (fourth place), won silver, and Olympic rookie Antoine, 28, took bronze for the U.S.'s first skeleton medals in 12 years.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
STEADYING HAND Pro volleyballer Beck, now Miller's wife, was a constant presence at her husband's races in the mountains outside Sochi.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PIKUS-PACE)
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MILLER)
ALL OR NOTHING After coming up short in his first two events, Miller knew that his best remaining chance for a medal would be in the Super-G.