By Barry Svrluga
Sunday, February 28, 2010; D11
WHISTLER, B.C. -- The conditions Saturday on the worn-out, propped-up racecourse at Whistler Creekside were miserable, snow that turned to rain that was, more than occasionally, completely encased in fog. In this environment, Bode Miller, skiing for his fourth medal of these Olympics, didn't make it through four gates. Ted Ligety, skiing to salvage his own Games and remind people he is a key component of the U.S. Ski Team, lasted maybe 25 seconds before he, too, skied out.
"The Olympics weren't that sweet for me," said Ligety, a gold medalist in 2006 who went 0 for 4 here.
That, though, was the immediate snapshot provided after Saturday's slalom, a race in which Italy's Giuliano Razzoli took an emotional gold with a run that -- in perhaps the most stunning development over two weeks on the mountain here -- bumped Austria's Benjamin Raich from the medal stand. With Croatia's Ivica Kostelic and Sweden's Andre Myhrer taking silver and bronze, respectively, the Austrian men won no Alpine medals for the first time since 1936.
Over the broad picture of those two weeks, the Austrians essentially stepped aside for the Americans. Last Sunday, Miller authored the race that could help define his career, one that had been littered with questions about commitment, when he won gold in the super combined. That was the eighth medal for the American team in these Games, and though they went without a medal over the final four events, they still established a new, national standard for Alpine success at the Olympics.
Miller won gold, silver and bronze. Lindsey Vonn won gold and bronze. Julia Mancuso won two silvers. No other team won more than four medals.
"It looks great when you're popping medals left and right, how we were in the beginning, and you think, 'Oh, we're just good and we're kicking [butt],' " Miller said. "But the fact is, we're taking huge risks -- everyone, even Lindsey, who came in here as a monstrous favorite. You can't just coast down and think you're going to get medals here. It doesn't work that way."
By Miller's telling, the only way he could have contended for a medal in the slushy slalom was to ski so aggressively he could as easily miss a gate as finish. It is, he said, how he won his other medals -- gold in the super combined, silver in the super-G, bronze in the downhill. But he said the fact that he skied out so early -- he hadn't even reached the first timing marker -- did nothing to dampen or darken his Olympics.
"You have to be able to live with that possible result if you want to take the risk," Miller said, "and that's what makes the Olympics special."
That phrase -- "what makes the Olympics special" -- may be what best characterizes Miller's perceived transformation from four years ago, when he was the butt of jokes and the subject of scorn after the Turin Games. He is almost obsessive about saying he is not obsessed with results, yet he leaves here as the only American skier to win three medals at a single Games and the only one with more than three in a career (he has five). Take those results out of it, though. He also leaves here talking -- still -- of how the Olympics, and the spirit around them, propelled him to results he didn't know were possible.
"It's unique and incredible," Miller said. "The race the other day was just awesome, the super combined. It was really one of those things that I'll remember that feeling and my place in the whole picture really clearly, I think, for a long time.
"I used to race very similar to that, with that kind of heart and intensity, all the time when I was younger, and to have that come back and be inspired at this Games was -- I think I appreciate it a lot more now than I did then, how unusual it is and how unique it is to find that kind of energy to go above and beyond what you could normally achieve on your own because you're a part of something else. That was really cool. I think it was probably exactly what I needed."
In a way, too, Miller's return, and the attitude that went with it, was exactly what the ski team needed in order to maximize its potential. Of the true American medal contenders here, Ligety, the gold medalist in the combined in 2006, was the only one who didn't perform. He leads the giant slalom standings, yet finished ninth in that event. He was fifth in the super combined, 19th in the downhill, and he didn't live to see the second slalom run Saturday.
"It's a disappointment for sure," Ligety said. "I was really expecting myself to get a medal."
Yet among disappointments, that's about it. Even Andrew Weibrecht, who had never finished higher than 10th in a World Cup race, won a bronze medal in the super-G. Miller's three-medal performance -- even though he failed to complete either the giant slalom or the slalom -- allowed the American team to surpass the five medals it won in 1984, the previous high. Had Miller retired, as he contemplated doing last summer, when he didn't train, the dynamics would have been different.
"He wanted to be pushed and be challenged," said U.S. men's Coach Sasha Rearick, who was not on the Olympic coaching staff in Turin. "He wanted a quality program. One of the things he really wanted from us was -- the only thing was -- who's going to challenge me? Who's going to hold me accountable to working hard?"
The question for the American Alpine team going forward: Who will still be challenging in 2014 in Sochi, Russia? Vonn and Mancuso, both 25, will be back. Ligety, also 25, appeared determined, even Saturday, to return to the medal stand in the future. Weibrecht, who celebrated his medal Saturday with a parade in his hometown of Lake Placid, N.Y., is 24 and improving.
What, then, of Miller's plans? He will head to San Diego and rest his injured ankle, he said, and might ski in the final event of the World Cup season. But he is 32.
He has skied in four Olympics. He now has the medals -- in four disciplines -- to match his talent. Will he, at this time next year, still be skiing?
"I don't know," he said. "We'll see. I have no idea."
He does, though, have an idea now of what the Olympics can do, because he has felt it: They can inspire and propel people, even entire teams, to performances they might not have produced otherwise.