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WINTER OLYMPICS

There's gold in them hills for Bode Miller after all

The once-controversial skier wins super combined for first gold medal of his mercurial career, giving him three medals in these Olympics and five overall (both U.S. records), and completing his image

February 22, 2010|By Chris Dufresne
  • Bode Miller rounds a gate in the slalom portion of the men's super combined in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics on Sunday.
Bode Miller rounds a gate in the slalom portion of the men's super combined… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Whistler, Canada — Bode Miller won his first Olympic gold medal on Sunday -- four years too late for those who left him at the Turin train station -- and said afterward he would have been just as happy to have finished fourth.

Typical Bode.

Even when he finally won, and got the snowplow off his back, and made up for Italy (sort of), and put the capper on one of ski racing's greatest careers, he needed to explain what victory meant.

Something magical happened at the super combined at Whistler Mountain, with Miller's ethereal quest for racing purity finally meeting up with first place at the Olympic finish line.

Like the surfer who chases the world for the perfect wave, Miller finally captured ecstasy on his two boards with the race of his life.

And he won a really cool medal too.

Finishing seventh in the morning downhill, which left him 0.76 behind leader Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, Miller put down the third-fastest afternoon slalom time and won the day with a winning time of 2 minutes 44.92 seconds.

Exhausted, hot, thirsty and "hungry," Miller leaned his skis and body across the finish line.

Croatia's Ivica Kostelic, who had the benefit of his father's having set the slalom course, finished second, with Silvan Zurbriggen of Switzerland claiming bronze. Ted Ligety, the defending Olympic champion in combined, finished fifth.

"It feels amazing," Miller said. "I've never really had too many confidence issues with my skiing, but the way I executed, the way I skied, is something I'll be proud of for the rest of my life."

If you didn't know this was about more than winning, you never met Bode.

"The gold medal, it's great," Miller said. "I think it's perfect. Ideally, that's what everyone is shooting for. But the way I've skied these last races is what matters. I would have been proud of that skiing with a medal or not."

Miller is in the midst of the Olympics he was supposed to have four years ago, where he split the Italian scene after leaving behind a splitting headache.

Miller has gold, silver and bronze medals in three races here -- no American Alpine skier has earned more in the same Olympics. His Sunday gold was his fifth medal overall, also an American record. Miller's medal was the record (for now) eighth for the U.S. ski team in Whistler (the Austrians have two -- both on the women's side).

The combined format lends itself to dramatic endings, with competitors skiing the slalom in reverse order of the downhill finish.

Miller skied 23rd in the slalom, needing to make up the deficit on Svindal, already a silver- and gold-medal winner in these Games.

Miller's run knocked Kostelic out of first place and raised a screaming crowd to its feet.

Miller still had to sweat out six more racers.

Zurbriggen, the fourth-ranked slalom skier in the world, could get only to within 0.40, good enough for third.

The next two skiers crashed out, leaving Switzerland's Carlo Janka to give it his best shot . . . and come up 0.62 short.

Two racers separated Miller from gold. Italy's Dominik Paris, who had finished second in the downhill, went sideways in the slalom and ended up 13th.

That left Svindal, the World Cup overall champion, who bolted from the gate with a three-quarter-second advantage. One problem: Svindal has had trouble finishing World Cup slalom races, and he didn't finish this one either.

When Svindal skidded out, Miller had his gold -- and he had won it his way.

Miller's contemporaries on the World Cup tour, many of whom view him as a virtuoso who lacked only universal anointment -- tipped their skis to the American.

"I do think it's cool he got a gold," Svindal, the Norwegian, said. "I'm not surprised, but definitely impressed."

Austrian star Benjamin Raich, a double-gold winner in Turin, called Miller the perfect skier.

"He's the man with the fastest turns," Raich said.

The decision to change the Olympic combined format, from two slalom runs to one, cost Ligety a good shot to repeat his gold. Ligety grew up idolizing Miller, though, so it wasn't hard to bow down.

Ligety said Miller's racing resume is "pretty much complete."

The finish area was a rock-star scene as Miller made his way to the interview tent. Kids lined the fence screaming "Bode! Bode!"

American flags rippled, for sure, but there were Swiss and Norwegian flags too. A man with a bright red-and-white cap emblazoned "Russia" wanted Miller to sign his coat. A little girl with braces pleaded for him to sign her ticket.

He did.

He couldn't have been more removed from the fiasco of Italy, when he left the mountains after granting a brief exit interview in which he told the Associated Press that, although he failed to medal, he got "to party and socialize at an Olympic level."

Those were trying times -- Miller now admits to it, saying Sunday that, back then, he was running on motivational fumes.

"I just had the plug pulled out from my important fuel source," he said. "I had no intention of blowing it, I raced as hard as I could, but I didn't have this energy and enthusiasm."

Miller has three medals with two races left.

It's going to end differently this time.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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