SOCHI, Russia — On a sparkling morning filled with the promise of history, the glistening path down Rosa Khutor was no country for this old man.
Bode Miller finished what is likely to be the last downhill flight of his long Olympic career Sunday by skidding to a slow and quiet stop. The most decorated ski racer in American history remained frozen in his tracks, his gloved hands holding his steaming head, perfectly still.
When he finally slushed away from the finish corral, he did so as if the weight of the world were on those skis, one slow left, one slow right. Just before disappearing into a nearby trailer, he stopped once more and glared up at the steep white slope, almost as if that slope were glaring back.
For four previous Olympics, Miller had trivialized their mountains, partied on their mountains, acted bigger than their mountains. On Sunday, at a ski racer’s ancient age of 36, he was finally ready to embrace this mountain and win its biggest prize, the downhill title that had always eluded him.
But the mountain bit back. Just when the renewed Miller was ready to say hello, the mountain pushed him off into an icy, painful goodbye.
Entering as the clear favorite after winning two of the three practice runs, setting himself up to become one of the sentimental stories of these Olympics, Miller lost his speed, his sight, his nerve, and eventually this final dream as he finished eighth in a race won by Austria’s Matthias Mayer.
“This can be a tough one to swallow today,” Miller said quietly. “This is the premier event, and it’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit.”
His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, and his face was covered in stubble, but his dour expression was clear. Even though he’s won five Olympic medals, including one gold, he came back from a yearlong injury break just in time to win the most precious of all of them. He came back in hope of finally owning the downhill, a daring, unpredictable event that perfectly suits a personality that has long both irked and intrigued.
Miller soars crazily through this event just as he has soared crazily through the world, with a mixture of aloofness and iconoclasm. He once scolded people for caring too much about winning. He admitted that he has skied “wasted.” He rationalized his failure to win a medal in Turin in 2006 — he went 0 for 5 — by crowing that he “got to party and socialize at an Olympic level.”
The public tired of his act, and, even though he gained some measure of redemption with three medals in 2010 in Vancouver, Miller virtually disappeared from the sports landscape, mounting a comeback this winter and skidding into Sochi as a born-again star. He will compete in four other Alpine events in this Olympics, but the downhill is his everything.
“He was really, really strong on training runs. . . . He was the big favorite to win this race,” said Italy’s Peter Fill.
Then, he actually raced. And it was as if the mountain couldn’t wait.
“This race was a new game, and you had to play it,” said Italy’s Dominic Paris.
Miller, instead, got played. He started splendidly and fearlessly, and actually took the lead after two intervals. But then he nicked a flag, and lost his speed on a flat part of the course, which meant he could never regain it. By the time he finished, the cheering had quieted, the cowbells had stopped, and fans actually oozed sympathy as he stood frozen in disappointment.
“He’s really hurting,” said teammate Steven Nyman.
In typical Miller fashion, he tried to mask some of that hurt by claiming that it really wasn’t his fault, that he had not made any mistakes. He said the course had softened by the time he went off in the 15th position and that an overcast sky had made it tough for him to see the contours in the snow, forcing him to slow down.
“It’s just the course just slowed down, it’s one of the big challenges in ski racing is sometimes it’s not in your hands,” he said.
Of course, if the course had really slowed down, then how come it didn’t bother second-place finisher Christof Innerhofer of Italy, who skied five positions after Miller? And hitting that flag really wasn’t a mistake, even though his interval times immediately slowed afterward? At least one of his teammates thought otherwise.
“It’s a real bummer. . . . He had one mistake on this critical turn. . . . If you lose your speed there, it’s a losing battle to the finish,” said Travis Ganong, who finished fifth.
Nothing with Bode Miller is ever simple, is it? Even so, the real bummer is that a guy representing a country of eternally forgiving sports fans couldn’t have found one last ounce of forgiveness from one last mountain in this one last Olympic downhill.
“Just like I’ve said a million times, I’m not always so attached to a result,” Miller said. “But I would have loved to get a gold medal today, or any medal.”
Everyone who gathered here for Sunday’s long-awaited coronation knew it.
But so did the mountain.