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WINTER OLYMPICS

Bode Miller's comeback story gets off to rousing start

The skier, a sour, medal-less outsider four years ago in Turin, dedicates his bronze Monday in the men's downhill to his teammates. With his two silvers in 2002, he's tops among U.S. Alpine skiers.

February 16, 2010|By Chris Dufresne

Reporting from Whistler, Canada — Bode Miller went from making trouble in Turin to making history in Whistler, and that transformation may be an ongoing story of the 2010 Olympics.

Four years after being shut out in Olympic medals and shouted down by the media, Miller got Vancouver off to a gate-roaring start Monday by taking bronze in the men's downhill.

Miller's third medal -- he captured double silver in 2002 at Salt Lake City -- gives him more Olympic hardware than any skier in the history of American Alpine.

"To win a medal for the U.S., in the first event we had a chance to, it's great for my team," Miller said.

It was a remarkable quote from a skier who once skirted the fall line of insubordination, leaving the U.S. ski team after 2006 to go it alone.

Miller returned to the U.S. team in September, soon to be 32, woefully out of shape and vowing his actions, not words, would prove he deserved another look.

Miller looked pretty good Monday, and his performance was certainly action-packed.

He missed gold by .09 -- basically an eye blink.

Didier Defago, a formidable veteran but somewhat overlooked on a Swiss team that boasted stars Didier Cuche and Carlo Janka, took the gold.

Defago's winning time down the Dave Murray course was 1 minute 54.31 seconds, which bested silver winner Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway by .07.

It was the first gold for Switzerland in the downhill since Pirmin Zurbriggen won at the 1988 Calgary Games.

The 32-year-old Defago has three World Cup victories in his career, but this was his first Olympic medal.

"This is what I was missing," he said. "I wanted to bring back more weight in my luggage than what I came with."

Miller acknowledged he's not the same guy who partied all night before he bolted out of start gates in Italy. He was trying to win then, no doubt, but approached the Turin Olympic races with a cold, tactical calculation.

Missing were the kind of butterflies he felt at the top Monday.

"When we were in the lodge before the first run, it was clear this was not a World Cup," Miller said. "Everyone was feeling something different. It was cool for me. It was sort of what I've been looking for, the feeling I've been searching for, and I let it build up. I was real nervous before I went -- excited nervous, not anxiety nervous."

Miller drew the No. 8 bid, and put down a time -- 1:54.40 -- that was going to have to be chased down.

"I thought he was going to win," teammate Marco Sullivan, who did not place after crashing, said of Miller.

Svindal, the defending World Cup overall champion, and skiing from the 16th start spot, knocked Bode off the top block.

Two racers later, Defago bounced the American to third.

Miller then had to wait nervously as a murderers' row of contenders threatened his medal chances.

Manuel Osborne-Paradis, one of the pre-race favorites, couldn't do it from the No. 19 spot, and neither could the two Swiss heavyweights: Janka and Cuche. Robbie Dixon, another Canadian, had Miller's bronze in his sights before crashing.

Once the 64-man race got past the top 30, Miller's bronze was all but assured.

Miller pumped his right fist at the post-race flower ceremony and made his media rounds in the mixed-zone interview area wearing a red cap emblazoned with an American flag.

It wasn't long ago that Bode was seen more as an antihero, and now his camaraderie and nationalism could not be contained?

"It's been a transition for me back on the team," Miller confessed. "Everyone's worked really hard. . . . I think it was more a medal for everyone else than me in particular, but I'll take it."

The rest of America didn't fare as well. Steven Nyman checked in at No. 20 with Andrew Weibrecht a finish spot behind. Sullivan crashed near the bottom of the course but walked away uninjured.

Miller's next scheduled race is Tuesday's super combined -- one run of downhill and a turn at slalom.

Sasha Rearick, the U.S. men's coach who helped talk Miller back onto the team with a series of heart-to-heart conversations that began last spring, now sees a spring in Miller's step.

"He is enjoying skiing and having fun doing it," Rearick said.

Rearick, all along, believed Miller had something left in his tank.

"Had he lost it?" Rearick said of his desire. "I don't know, but now he's having fun."

Miller went winless in his last Olympics but has a chance here to be the multiple-medal winner everyone expected him to be four years ago.

"You guys can do the speculating," Miller joked. "That's your job. But I feel strong. I said it before. I'm fit, I'm stronger, I feel motivated."

Monday's downhill, because of the weather, had been delayed two days.

For Miller, though, the wait was two days and four years.

And, as it turned out, worth it.

chris.dufresne @latimes.com

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