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WHISTLER, British Columbia – He's still fluent in monotone, and hasn't lost the ability to simultaneously answer a question while sticking a thumb into an inquisitor's eye. He still doesn't seem all that into Olympic goals, at least not the way other people think he should be. And even when he talks of letting the emotion of the Vancouver Games wash over him, it sounds more like a Monday shower than a religious experience.
But there is no denying Bode Miller's talent.
That much was made clear once again on Monday, when the enigmatic American star took bronze in the men's downhill – his first medal since the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, and his record-setting third Olympic podium for USA in men's Alpine. Miller's effort was about as impressive as a bronze can get, only nine-hundredths behind the gold of Switzerland's Didier DeFago, and two-hundredth's off the silver captured by Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal. Moreover for Miller, it broke the spell of 2006, when he failed to medal in five races in the Torino Games, including a failure to finish in two events and a disqualification in a third.
Now the American public will likely be bombarded with attempts to re-cast Miller. We'll hear stories of how he's more laid back since having his daughter, Dacey, in 2008. We'll hear that he's engaged and connected with the U.S. Ski Team, which he famously feuded with and split from following the 2006 Olympics, before rejoining the program last September. And from Miller himself, we'll hear about how he's finally ready to embrace the joy of the Olympics, and allow it to sharpen his skiing, rather than treating the Games with cold, passionless precision.
As he put it Monday, "One of the things that was important to me when I decided to continue, was to race in that [emotional] fashion. To race with some inspiration and allow myself to be inspired and try to inspire other guys and everyone else."
It makes for a good quote, if it weren't coming with a flat, robotic cadence. But that's OK. Because in truth, this is Miller. He's not the stuff of NBC and the larger Olympic media machine, which has consistently sought out smiling, bubbly, nutritious personalities. Miller is complex. He's a tad morose, particularly when he's relating stories about his own feelings. But that's just who he is. Repackaging him would be a lie.
That's not to say there isn't depth behind the somewhat monotonous exterior. His talent is unmistakable. During the top end of the men's downhill, in which he posted the only sub 49-second split of any skier, you could feel a jolt of electricity flash through the 6,000-plus spectators. He came out charging, and in the turns, showcased his ability to be aggressive and razor sharp, sticking turns with 90-mile-per-hour precision that mock the laws of physics.
"He came out [of the top] hauling ass," said U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick. "He wanted to lay down an inspiring run. We wanted to see him have fun skiing, and that's what he did."
And while Miller's skiing seemed much more emotional than his post-race dialogue, there was more revealed than meets the eye. Historically a socially withdrawn teammate, he spent time Sunday with USA's three other downhillers, Andrew Weibrecht, Marco Sullivan and Steven Nyman. An afternoon that revealed someone far less coarse and closed than his reputation would suggest.
"I've never been around him, and he's just around us now," Nyman said. "He's funny. He's loose and he's joking around. I've enjoyed being around him. … It's been funny just to hang with him. At one point [Sunday], he was like, 'I have a 75-percent chance of winning this race.' I was like, 'What goes through your head, dude?' He just picks it up [emotionally]. He's ready. He wants it, that's for sure. He's hungry."
Of course, even approving teammates can't erase some of Miller's past missteps. There are still many members of the U.S. ski program that – to put it lightly – don't particularly care for his personality or the way he integrates into a team. Others, like U.S. women's golden child Lindsey Vonn, have publicly said they don't agree with how Miller has conducted himself in the past. And the American public will never understand many of his statements, including a now infamous claim on HBO's "Real Sports" that winning a gold medal in the Olympics would mean "less than nothing" to him.
And fairly or unfairly, he has often paid for the mistakes in the media, which ravenously attacked his performance in Torino, which was further punctuated by late-night partying and an overriding attitude of indifference. So maybe Miller is different now. Maybe the four years since Torino – which couldn't have been easy – have reprogrammed the buttons inside his head. His words suggest as much, when he talks about once again skiing emotionally rather than clinically, and said Monday's medal is "great for my team" and "for everyone else than me."
But even if we come to the end of these Games and Miller is the same petulant, defiant star, it's the deal the American Olympic faithful will have to learn to tolerate. The U.S. Ski Team did, and Miller delivered on Monday. And no matter how many podiums he takes in Vancouver, that package doesn't change according to the number of medals it carries back to the United States with it.