By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; D01
WHISTLER, B.C. -- Each interaction Bode Miller had Monday morning indicated something significant might be afoot. When he silently rode a chairlift to the top of the Olympic downhill course here, he appeared focused, not always his strength. When he arrived at the start and mingled with his fellow racers, he grew nervous, excited, anxious -- a cauldron of emotions that meant he understood, and even embraced, the magnitude of the event.
Four years ago in Turin, Miller could not capture such feelings, and the result was an Olympics in which he had the potential to win everything and he won precisely nothing. Monday was different, right from the start.
"It's the Olympics," he said. "It's the real deal. It's what makes people cry and makes people excited and inspired. That stuff, that's real."
The reality for Miller -- the subject of so much hype and controversy before, during and after the 2006 Games -- is that he is now the most decorated American Alpine skier in the history of the Olympics. Monday, he took a bronze in the men's downhill -- losing to Switzerland's Didier Defago by all of nine-hundredths of a second, trailing silver medalist Aksel Lund Svindal by just two-hundredths. That gives him three Olympic medals, joining the two silvers he won in 2002.
And he did so, he said, because he allowed himself to feel the event.
"I think there's a difference when you take it really clinically and like a job and just execute because you're the best in the world, you have the best skis in the world, you have all the experience," Miller said. "Compare that to when you go up there and you feel the Olympics. You get chills. You're nervous. You get a little scared. You get positive. You go through the emotional roller coaster of what it is to compete at the Olympic level, and you let that run through your whole body. You let yourself get built up and then you go out and give everything you've got."
On a day when cool temperatures finally engulfed Whistler, and a once-slushy racing surface hardened to the competitors' liking, everything Miller had was good enough to beat all but two racers. Everything about the day -- his performance and his mind-set -- indicates there might be more medals to come. Miller had not been on a World Cup podium in the downhill since January 2009. Still to come are the super combined Tuesday -- one of Miller's strengths, because he can race well in both downhill and slalom -- and the super-G Friday and the giant slalom Sunday. Could he add to his totals?
"I'm fit," he said. "I'm still getting stronger. I feel motivated."
That showed Monday in his demeanor. He rode the chairlift with teammate Marco Sullivan. "I don't think we said a word to each other," Sullivan said. When Miller got to the top, he ran into veteran World Cup racer Marco Buechel of Liechtenstein. The conversation blew Buechel away.
"He said he was nervous," Buechel said. "I'm like: 'What? Nervous? You? I never saw you like that.' He said: 'Well, I'm excited. I'm nervous.' "
Miller skied eighth of the 64 competitors, and his time of 1 minute 54.50 seconds over the 1.93-mile course was the best when he arrived at the finish. It was a solid run, one in which his most significant errors came near the bottom of the course, where he could have remained more aerodynamic.
"I think he lost the race at the bottom," teammate Steven Nyman said.
The run held until Svindal barely beat it eight skiers later. Two skiers after that came Defago. Switzerland was supposed to dominate this race, but it was either to be Didier Cuche, who leads the World Cup downhill standings, or Carlo Janka, who is second. No Swiss had won a gold in an Alpine event since Pirmin Zurbriggen took the downhill in 1988 in Calgary. Defago, who had only one career World Cup victory before winning at the storied mountains of Wengen and Kitzbuhel last year, not only matched Zurbriggen, but at 32 years 4 months old, he became the oldest Olympic downhill champion.
"This is what I was missing," Defago said. "I wanted to bring back a little more weight in my luggage than what I came with."
Miller knows more about baggage than anyone in the field. He has been, fairly or not, branded by his 0-for-5 performance and even worse behavior in Turin, when he seemed not to care about his results or his reputation. Since then, he has left the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's team, won a second World Cup overall title, contemplated retirement, and then rejoined the team last fall.
Monday, he took the first major step to publicly distancing himself from his last Olympics.
"In Torino, I was ready to win, I was capable of winning, and I executed actually fairly well in a couple races," Miller said. "It's just I wasn't emotionally very involved in the races. I was treating them very cold and clinical, just executing my plan and seeing if I won."
He did not. Monday, though, may have marked a turn. He felt right. He skied well. And though he professes to be the same person with the same attitude, he understands circumstances -- at the very least -- have changed.
"I don't really feel any different," Miller said. "I was able to step away from the team and then step away from the sport and then make my decision to come back with a pretty clean slate. I didn't have a lot of baggage. There wasn't a lot of extra pressure. There wasn't a lot of business commitments. There wasn't a lot of anything.
"I just decided that I wanted to ski race, and if I was going to ski race, I wanted to ski race in a way that would make me proud and hopefully inspire other guys in the sport. That's a much nicer feeling for me than the way it was before."
When the three medal winners gathered at the base of the mountain, Miller, first on the podium, waved to the crowd and smiled. Defago, last up, thrust his right arm in the air and screamed into the hills. Miller watched, and clapped for Defago's race and his reaction. Four years ago, Miller was nowhere near such a position. But as soon as Tuesday, it's possible those four years could seem even longer ago, and he could be standing where Defago stood Monday, winner of multiple medals in a year when no such thing was expected.