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Miller’s crossing: from tabloid target to focused flier

A cluster of reporters waited in the finish area at Whistler Creek on Thursday to catch a quick ski-by glimpse, or a quote, from the greatest Alpine racer in American history.

It wasn’t Bode Miller, though. It was Lindsey Vonn.

In terms of tabloid buzz and Olympic star power, it’s no longer Miller’s time.

Four years after capturing five gold medals for bad publicity at the 2006 Turin Games, Miller has, by comparison, sneaked through Vancouver’s back door.

In Sestriere, he skipped the light fandango -- partying on table tops into the wee hours.

Here, it’s been days since the Olympic torch was ignited in Vancouver, yet there have been no published reports of Bode being lit up in Whistler.

Someone wondered last week whether Miller had come in “under the radar.”

Miller said he was a flier, but not a fighter pilot.

“It’s a completely ridiculous idea to come in under the radar at the Olympics,” Miller scolded. “Everyone’s on the radar here. If one of you guys were to come up and race, it might be under the radar.”

Miller still likes to spar with journalists, many of whom wrote him the riot act for his inglorious performance at the Turin Games, where he provided red meat to the “ugly American” stereotype.

Miller, though, clearly seems to be in a better place.

No one is predicting five medals at Whistler, but the feeling is that Miller might claim one or two, starting with Monday’s rescheduled men’s downhill.

Miller’s decision last fall to return to the U.S. Ski Team seems to have rekindled a spark. Maybe simply turning 32 softens your rough ski edges.

“The Olympics played a pretty important role in that decision to come back,” he said last week, “because if it was just a regular season, I probably would have taken the season off and reevaluated next year.”

It is in Miller’s DNA to challenge himself and everyone around him, and jumping back on skis after seven months of self-imposed exhale, in an Olympic year, may have been the challenge of his life.

“I’m ready to race,” Miller said at the U.S. Alpine media session last week in Whistler Village. “I was ready to race in Torino. I didn’t have a great Olympics, but I’ve had lots of series of races that have gone much worse than that. I come in here prepared and fired up, and hopefully it pops up on the ‘radar’ here and there.”

Miller may never reconcile how poorly his act played in Italy, but maybe his way of atonement is not letting it happen again.

He engaged the media this week. He took questions as part of a group with the U.S. men’s Alpine speed team, and then stayed afterward for bonus time.

His answers still had Bode bite and he still loves to prod and provoke and play the contrarian. But it now seems more playful, not as venomous.

He has to know this is probably his last chance to make things right. His legacy is secure in the womb of ski racing, less so elsewhere.

Miller has won more World Cup races, 32, than any other American skier, although the 25-year-old Vonn is just one victory from tying him on her way to leaving Miller in her wake.

Miller is a two-time World Cup overall champion, and people tend to forget he already owns two silver medals from the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

He barged into the 2006 Games criticizing Olympic ideals and the over-emphasis on medals. Miller made his point by not winning any.

He’s a definitely a tough ice block to crack, but if there’s an essence to what he thinks, it’s that it’s fine to pursue a gold medal so long as it doesn’t interfere with a ski race’s deeper ethereal context.

Miller seeks the perfect run and has lost Olympic medals -- the slalom in Salt Lake comes to mind -- he might have won had he played it safer.

Miller explained: “One of the reasons I came back this season, and one of the things that’s most important to me about skiing, about my legacy, if I would call it that, that I leave behind, is racing for the pure adrenaline of racing fast. And not getting too tangled up in the results and the outcomes. Obviously, you always want to win, but you want to win by skiing a race that you’re proud of.”

In Italy, he was disqualified from the Olympic super-G for hooking a gate. He avoided serious injury with an acrobatic dance on one ski, at high speed, that summoned all the powers of his brilliance.

Hard-core observers place that move on Miller’s top shelf of accomplishments.

“That’s the legacy I want to leave behind,” Miller said. “That I come here and race hard. Hopefully, I can make the tactical decisions to make it down and be error-free. But I want to make sure I find the gas pedal and depress it to the floor.”

chris.dufresne@latimes.com


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