KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — COLUMN | There was no “bluebird sky” for Bode Miller, as he liked to call it. Instead the weather turned overcast and vague, softening the snow and smudging his view. On training days, the Olympic men’s downhill course at Rosa Khutor had been illuminated, the sun sharply delineating its terrifying crags. It was a course that “could kill,” Miller said, and he killed it in turn. But then it clouded up, and suddenly Miller couldn’t find his edge.
Miller loved the clear-cut peril of Rosa Khutor, with its stomach-plunging drop of 3,527 feet in elevation, swooping turns, and hump-shaped brows that sent him eagling into the air. The hard snow rattled his skis until they almost jumped up and hit him in the mouth, and summoned all of his go-for-brokeness.
He skied it so well in training that when he laid down the fastest time in the final tuneup, Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud called the run “epic” and Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway designated him the favorite. But overnight there was a change. The temperature rose, the sky clouded, and everything went a little gray. Gray — not a good hue for a 36-year-old trying to become the oldest man to win an Olympic Alpine medal.
“It’s one of those days where it’s hard to say where the time went,” he said afterward.
The warmth smoothed out the snow and made the skis clatter a little less, especially in the middle and lower sections. “The course just slowed down,” he said. They were the wrong conditions for a skier perpetually on the verge, who needs to be able to see where each corduroy of snow is to keep from catapulting into the safety fence. There were no hues, nothing for his eyes to grab on to. The dull sky and flat whites made Miller squint — and hesitate just fractionally. The conditions stranded him in eighth place, while a 23-year-old, Matthias Mayer of Austria, took advantage of an earlier start and charged over the lower half of the course more than a half-second faster.
“I ski a bit more on the edge than most guys, so I don’t have as much tolerance for not being able to see the snow,” Miller said later. “I need to know where the snow is. At the beginning of the turn, the middle of the turn, I need to know where the bump is. . . .
“It’s really hard to know that you’re in an Olympic race with medals on the line, and you really want to win, to know that you’re going to dial it back to 80 percent.”
Mountains of the Olympics
For half the race, Miller was still better than anyone, leading through the first two timed intervals. But then he bled fractions of seconds. There was no great wipeout, no blown chance, just a succession of smaller costly mistakes, a couple of clipped gates, and a slightly slipped line through a turn. All of which cost him precious time.
But in the longer view, time and the clock have also been good to Miller. Age has made him more openly committed, less enigmatic and ducking. It’s given him a meet-the-eyeness he used to lack.
As a younger athlete his studied nonchalance was hard to take; he pretended to shrug when he went medal-less in the 2006 Turin Games, claiming he just wanted to ski “in a way that’s exciting for me,” taking the notion of it’s-not-the-destination-it’s-the journey to extreme. He courted publicity, and then jumped fences and took back roads to avoid explaining his failure to live up to it. He loathed dealing with the expectations of others.
There was no put-up job by Miller here. He verbally committed to the importance of this race for him, something he has almost never done over the course of his mercurial, uneven, all-over-the-mountain career. Maybe the combination of maturity and his gold-silver-bronze success in Vancouver made him more secure. For whatever reason, Miller stepped up and laid down an ante: He wanted this race, and he said so. And when he didn’t get it, he faced it squarely.
Keys to the skis
Miller has never cared so openly about an outcome. At the end of the run he bent double, then clutched at his helmet, and after a moment sagged into a sitting position. There he stayed for some time, going over the race in his head, explaining it to himself. When he got up and explained it for the cameras, there was no trace of lament, or apology, just emotional honesty.
“I was just going through the run and seeing if there was anything that I would change, or how I feel,” he said. “Just like I’ve said a million times, I’m not always so attached to the result, but you know, I would’ve loved to get a gold medal today — or any medal.”
As Miller crouched in the snow, staring back up the hill, he tried to cope with the possibility that what may have been his best chance to medal at his final Olympics was gone. He had so clearly been the best all through the training runs. Though he will ski the four remaining Alpine events, the weather may not be ideal; the forecast calls for more warmth and clouds. He went over the race, asking himself “if I blew it, if I did something stupid.” The answer was no. He had lost because the elemental combinations didn’t favor him. The sky was not his friend, and neither was the stopwatch.
“It’s tough when you have to judge yourself, because the clock doesn’t really seem to judge you fairly,” he said.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.