KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Given the way these Olympics had progressed for the U.S. Alpine ski team, one medal Sunday would have been enough, particularly given who won it. As the world’s best super-G skiers raced down the cloud-covered course at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, Bode Miller’s position in the standings — and in skiing history — grew more secure by the moment. He would become, it seemed sure, not only the oldest Alpine medalist in Olympic history, but he would further separate himself from the best American skiers ever with his sixth medal at the Winter Games.
“I’ve never been so much into counting them,” Miller said afterward, and as noon approached in the Caucasus Mountains, he felt like he couldn’t even count on this one.
At that point, Miller trailed only Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud, and he was tied with Canada’s Jan Hudec. Into the starting gate stepped Andrew Weibrecht, an American whose only bit of notoriety came precisely four years earlier, when he won bronze in Vancouver.
Miller turned to Jansrud and said something almost no one between here and Lake Placid was thinking: “There’s a good chance that he wins the race right now.”
Huh? What, realistically, was that chance? Weibrecht, six days removed from his 28th birthday, has more surgeries in the past four years (four) than he does top-10 finishes on the World Cup circuit in his career (two). He is a student at Dartmouth, where he must work one more summer for his degree. His career is fragile enough that his wife, from his hometown of Lake Placid, N.Y., gave up owning a car of her own, and instead the couple shares a truck. And Sunday, he was skiing through a softening course from the 29th position — an afterthought, the performance of his life come and gone four years ago.
“There’s been times where I’ve had to evaluate whether this is really what I want to do,” Weibrecht said, “even as recently as yesterday.”
Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)
Miller’s prediction didn’t come true, not exactly. But with that bronze four years removed, Weibrecht outdid it, crushing the top of the course to take a lead, then holding on over the bottom for the most unlikely Alpine medal at these Olympics: silver, just 0.30 of a second behind Jansrud’s winning time of 1 minute 18.14 seconds and 0.23 ahead of Miller and Hudec, who shared bronze.
“I think he’s in shock, if you want to know the truth,” said his mother, Lisa, who watched with the rest of the family back home in Lake Placid.
Who wouldn’t be? When Weibrecht took his bronze in the super-G in Vancouver, he was something of an up-and-comer, and he was right behind Miller, who won silver in that race. But in his next event that year, he tore the rotator cuff and labrum in his right shoulder. He then tore ligaments in his left ankle. In 2011, he tore the labrum in his left shoulder. Three days after he came back, he tore ligaments in his right ankle, but he tried to ski through it. That warranted one surgery after the 2012 season, another after 2013.
“There’s so many times that you can get kicked before you start to really feel it,” Weibrecht said. “I try not to focus on results, but I really needed a result to remind me that, more than anything, that I’m capable of this and that I belong here.”
Others knew. “He’s got mad skills,” U.S. men’s coach Sasha Rearick said. But with all the injuries, and with Weibrecht’s laid-back disposition, they have been on display precious few times. Years ago, a rival coach likened the 5-foot-6, 180-pound Weibrecht to a wombat, and the description is apt, what with the scruff on his face and a rounded, low-to-the-ground build. Rearick took to trying to fire up Weibrecht by yelling, “Let the wombat out of the cage!” He had varying results.
“I haven’t seen him out of the cage in a loooong time,” Rearick said Sunday.
Here he came, though, with the medals all but sorted out. Miller skied 13th, and took the lead when he crossed the finish line. But an error near the bottom of the course cost him time, and given the quality of the skiers still to come — 2010 gold medalist Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway and downhill gold medalist Matthias Mayer of Austria foremost among them — Miller’s lead was precarious.
“To hang onto a medal today, I feel really lucky and very fortunate,” Miller said, and the résuméattached to his name grows more astounding because he did. With six medals — two in 2002, three in 2010 and one here — he trails only Norwegian legend Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who won eight, among Alpine skiers. When Aamodt won the super-G in 2006, he became, at 34, the oldest Olympic Alpine medalist. Now Miller, 36, has him — and handily.
“I feel old,” Miller said.
Keys to the skis
He may have aged during the wait. Jansrud skied 21st, and his run was nearly perfect, a half second better than the field. Hudec came immediately after, and he joined Miller at 1:18.67. Neither Mayer nor Italy’s Christof Innerhofer, with two medals here, could finish the course. Svindal, who won three medals in Vancouver, continued a difficult Olympics by finishing 0.09 of a second behind Miller and Hudec, out of the medals for the third straight event.
So here came Weibrecht. He grew up skiing Whiteface, the Lake Placid mountain that hosted the Alpine events at the 1980 Olympics, and he still draws inspiration from the “unbelievable Olympic aura” of his home town.
When he led after the first split, it was on.
“The race was right there for him, really,” Miller said. “He skied a very smart, tactically perfect race after that.”
A fast one, too. At the finish, he knew he had skied well. But what could a skier who hadn’t stepped on a podium in four years really know about skiing well? When he looked at the scoreboard and saw his position, he doubled over. Eight years on the World Cup circuit, with no finish better than 10th. Two Olympics, now both with medals.
“This is probably the most emotional day of ski racing I’ve ever had,” Weibrecht said. “All the issues and troubles that I’ve had, to come and be able to have a really strong result, it reminds me that all the work that I did to come back from the injuries, and just kind of dealing with it through all the hard times, that’s all worth it.”