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Lindsey Vonn is missing, but Bode Miller still gives the Sochi Games a shot of star power

Charles Robinson
Yahoo Sports

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Downhill course provides toughest test of year

Downhill course provides toughest test of year

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Through the arc of his career, Bode Miller has been just everything.

Just fast.

Just squandering.

Just a superstar.

Just an ass.

In the parlance of world-class skiing, this is what is known as "Just Bode."

To teammates and coaches and media, he is Carl Sagan's answer to the Olympic cosmos: all that is, or was, or ever will be. A man hurtling toward the final question of his career – "Will history embrace or reject Bode Miller?" – and with seemingly only one logical answer: Yes.

[ Related: Ligety, Miller lead US ski charge in Sochi ]

We will reject Bode Miller for partying through the part of his career that could have made him the greatest skier to walk Earth. And we will reject him further for not being upset about it. But we will love him because at the end – in these final winter Olympics for him – he appears to be skiing as well as he ever has. He looks ready to close.

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Bode Miller trains for the men's downhill at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center. (AFP)

Undoubtedly perched, unmistakably Bode.

This is what the Lindsey Vonn vacuum has left behind: a U.S. Alpine program coming off a program-best eight medals in the Vancouver Games in 2010 – robust with talent, but flickering in superstar power. Without Vonn, the spotlight shifts to Ted Ligety, a gold medalist whose style of control and efficiency dominated the World Championships en route to a historic three gold medals in 2013. Next in line is Mikaela Shiffrin, attractive, marketable and 18 years young. Armed with wins on the World Cup circuit and dubbed the "next Vonn," but wholly untested on an Olympic stage.

And, finally, there's Bode.

[ Related: Miller, Shiffrin, headline US Sochi Alpine team ]

Lest anyone doubt who is driving the thirst of the U.S. media coming into these games, you needed to be on hand only Thursday. Miller posted the fastest downhill training run of the day, looking fluid and aggressive and like a favorite at 36. Which is significant, considering nobody over the age of 34 has ever captured an Olympic medal in an Alpine event, not to mention Miller's five Olympic medals are tied for second all time with the unforgettable Alberto Tomba. If Miller's show on Thursday is a legitimate taste of what is coming, he has a realistic shot to contend for a gold medal in both the downhill and the men's super-G. And as a man who has won World Cup races in all five disciplines, nothing seems impossible.

That was reflected Thursday, when the news conference advancing the men's downhill featured 11 media questions – eight focused on some aspect of Bode. All were responded to on the familiar alpha wave length.

What did he think of the mountain?

"The air is big and it seems like the consequences of making mistakes are still really high, which is what I think downhill is about."

What did he think of Aksel Lund Svindal, the dominant and imposing Norwegian who is the favorite in the downhill?

"The risks he takes are always calculated on what it's going to take to win. I more or less ski with the intent to push myself."

[ Related: Miller ready to win every race ]

How does this Olympics – Bode's fifth in his career – stack up for him?

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Miller will be competing in his fifth Winter Games. (USA Today)

"Hopefully the opening ceremonies will stir some of my emotions. But I've definitely kind of been here and done this. Not to take anything away from the Olympics, but it just isn't the same after you've done it as many times as I have."

At one point when the news conference had long been dominated by Miller questions, veteran U.S. skier Marco Sullivan (he of three Olympic games) was asked his opinion … on new Bode versus old Bode.

"I don't know," Sullivan said in a moment of palpable awkwardness. "He's Bode. It's hard to really characterize."

[ Related: Mellow Miller missing the old vibes ]

Ultimately, that may be the takeaway from these Sochi games – the impossible characterization of an unlikely final run. When Miller sat out the 2012 season to recuperate from a dreaded microfracture surgery on his left knee, then returned for spotty World Cup results in 2013, the flame appeared to have diminished. It was a legitimate question about whether he could even make one last Olympic appearance.

But now Miller is showcasing a fitness that he hasn't had for years, arguably eclipsing 2010, when he captured a gold, silver and bronze in Vancouver. A breakthrough that Miller described to Yahoo Sports in the simplest terms in November.

Asked why, after so many failures, he was able to rise in Vancouver from Olympic ashes and capture the gold medal that had eluded him for so long, Miller said it was simple.

"I just decided to do it," Miller said.

Four years later, with little professional success since, what Miller decides to do is anyone's guess. But the U.S. Alpine team has a significant void that seemed impossible to fill only weeks ago. So while the end has finally arrived for Bode Miller, so, too, has the decisive moment in a career of everything and nothing.

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