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Yes, the program sputtered in the final four races of the Vancouver Games – crashing, missing gates, failing to finish multiple races – but its furious start is what will endure. By capturing eight medals in the first six races in Whistler, the United States ensured it would dominate the Alpine podium, outperforming such heavy favorites as Austria, Norway and Switzerland, and making good on an immense stockpile of talent that fell short in 2006 in Torino, Italy.
And no skier was more surprising than Miller, who has long had the ability to win Olympic gold, but seemed to lack the passion to complete the journey. Three weeks ago he entered these Games beneath the immense shadow of Lindsey Vonn, whose talent, poise and marketability made her the crown jewel of NBC's programming. But three weeks later, well, Miller defied the expectations placed on him yet again.
But rather than flaming out as he did in Torino, he made a steady and unlikely climb up the podium with each race, first with a bronze in the downhill, then a silver in the super-G, and finally the elusive Olympic gold in the super-combined. Vonn would finish with two medals of her own – a gold in the downhill and a bronze in the super-G – but there was no doubting who had won the spotlight. It was Miller, plain and simple.
"I really couldn't be much happier," Miller said Saturday, after failing to finish in a brutal slalom event that saw 48 of 102 skiers either fail to finish or disqualified in the morning run. "To have three medals, and the two medals I didn't get, I skied hard. I came out, I was ready, I was prepared. That's all the stuff you can do. … Overall this Olympics was amazing how many things went my way."
Even with Miller's failure to finish the slalom and giant slalom, it was still an impressive Games. When you spoke to his teammates, all indications were that he did approach Vancouver in a different fashion than Torino. He appeared to be more engaging, a bit more open, and genuinely hungry for some Olympic success. Granted that success had to come on "Bode Terms" – something he made clear in press conferences that were spent meandering through his sometimes contradictory skiing philosophy.
Indeed, the success seemed to take some of the abrasive edge off, and complete his resume as the best Alpine skier America has ever produced. So much so that when his charging style knocked him out of his last two races, it was OK to shrug and accept that what makes him so good also jumps up and bites him at times. And it's not like he was the only skier to suffer the thorns of aggression. Vonn experienced it, too, failing to finish the super-combined, slalom and giant slalom. She also left the Games with a broken pinkie on her right hand after a rough crash in the giant slalom.
Ultimately, Vonn's Vancouver run will likely be remembered as much for its drama as its results, which did include a gold in the prestigious downhill discipline. But her shin injury dominated the buzz early, then gave way to her icy rivalry with teammate Julia Mancuso, before her trio of failed races left a somewhat flat feeling of disappointment.
Even she seemed to know it, admitting, "I know I could have done better in some of the disciplines, but I am totally satisfied with everything that I've done here in Vancouver. I have the gold medal that I came here for, and I couldn't be happier."
Ironically, Miller's success may have spared Vonn some grief from exaggerated expectations. Instead of once again engaging in the absurd debate of the "five medals in five events" talk – which was never realistic – the media accepted Vonn's performance for what it was: a good Olympics that wasn't quite spent at the top of her game.
As for Mancuso, she once again showed she has the chops to take her place among the best in the world when healthy. Her pair of silvers aside, had she not had to restart in the giant slalom, there is a very good chance she would have pushed for a medal – perhaps even gold. In a way, her performance filled a void left by Ted Ligety, the 2006 combined gold medalist, who never reached the podium and failed to finish the slalom on Saturday.
"The Olympics weren't that sweet for me," Ligety said. "It was fun to be here, and it was cool to watch the U.S.' success, but obviously I was hoping for more from myself. That's a disappointment. … I was really expecting myself to get a medal."
Ligety might have been the only skier who didn't realize his expectations in at least some way. But at 25, he can still compete in another Olympics in his prime, along with hard-charging 24-year-old Andrew Weibrecht, who captured bronze in the super-G. Even some of the younger talent, like 23-year-old Will Brandenburg and 20-year-old Tommy Ford, got some valuable experience. Along with Vonn and Mancuso, it should allow the U.S. to field a fairly talented team in the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
So that's what this team looks forward to now. With its best Olympic performance ever in the books – and a Sports Illustrated cover that should at least temporarily raise the sport's profile – the Vancouver Games were one of great strides for the American Alpine program. Strides that proved head men's coach Sasha Rearick correct in his November assertion that this team wasn't just Lindsey Vonn and everybody else.
In a way, that assumption was reversed over the last two weeks. Vonn was memorable, but it was the collective pieces beside her that made this U.S. team great.