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WHISTLER, British Columbia – Between breaths, Bode Miller could hear the snarling, howling syllables behind him. Puffs of cold smoke were coming from the lips of his gruff, mustachioed hype-man, Pete Lavin, who was driving a final thought in Miller's brain: The moment had arrived. The final stage of Millermorphosis was at hand.
"I know you want this thing," Lavin growled, moments before Miller charged into the slalom leg of Sunday's super combined race. "You know you want this thing. Now go take it."
What happened next was, in Alpine terms, Miller's Olympic skiing opus – 51.01 seconds of frenetic zig-zagging bliss. A run that, when combined with his respectable downhill time from earlier in the day, deposited a gold medal into the last void in Miller's considerable résumé. That his legacy was made whole by a defining slalom run only seemed appropriate for this man and this moment. What better way to shake four years of other people's disappointment than by changing directions at a furious, impossible pace … and then coming to a halt at the top of an Olympic podium.
In the electricity of the moment, it didn't seem real. Then again, redeeming tales like this one rarely do. But as reality set in, it became clear: Miller had finally delivered what so many expected of him at the 2006 Torino Games. Not only did the golden glow of Sunday's medal illuminate his greatness in terms that ski-ignorant Americans could embrace, but also it finally closed an ugly chapter in Miller's career that cast him as a robotic, cold and defiant star.
In one fell swoop, you knew the American opinion of Bode Miller shifted. Not half way or three quarters of the way – but all the way. Hell, the redemptive quality of his story might have been even better like this. Few can relate to the guy who wins everything. But give us someone who falls down and then jumps up again, and we'll practically write a song about him. We'll not only accept that story – we'll buy it. So maybe the only surprise Sunday was that when Miller captured gold, there weren't representatives from Visa and Coca-Cola to carry him off the race course on their shoulders.
But Miller will have time for that. He's now become the American story of these Olympic Games, advancing a little further up the podium in each of his three races – bronze in downhill, silver in super-G and finally gold in the super combined. A month ago, we expected this from Lindsey Vonn, who was cast as the warm, bright center of the U.S. skiing universe. Instead, America got it from Miller, the once bright star that went supernova four years ago and destroyed all the Olympic dreams that orbited around him.
That's the complex part of this story. Despite his past, almost everyone around Miller has been banging the "new Bode" drumbeat. Coaches talked about how he was skiing with succinct enthusiasm again and had embraced the Olympic spirit. His runs weren't the product of cold analysis. They were spelled out more nebulously, like an emotion. Accurately explaining Miller's passionate skiing was an elusive task, like trying to explain what love feels like. All anybody knew was that they knew it when they saw it.
All of which made for fuzzy feelings. But this wasn't a journey of holding hands or hugs. Indeed, it was awkward and trying and at times, unpleasant. And there are a lot of ways to tell that tale. You could start back in Torino, when many pundits predicted Miller would medal in all five skiing disciplines, then sat slack-jawed when he not only failed to medal even once, but skied with utter recklessness, failing to finish two races and being disqualified in a third. A media mob then skewered him – appropriately – when he thundered through the party scene at night, and suggested he didn't care about the Olympics by day.
People always wondered what Miller's problem was in those 2006 Games. There was always a nagging feeling that he blew up on purpose. And after listening to him talk about that experience this week, maybe a small part of him did.
Said Miller this week, "As [Torino] got closer and closer, I felt more and more trapped by what everyone else was saying. … Too many people had said, 'Oh, he's going to win these medals,' and, 'This is the way he skis,' and, 'This is who he is, and this is how he acts.' When everyone says that about you for that long – to millions and millions of people – you don't feel like you have ownership of your own actions anymore."
Then came the disastrous results, and a postscript that featured fractured bonds with the U.S. Ski Team, alienating coaches and teammates and a brief retirement that ended last September. All of which overshadowed his second World Cup overall title in 2008 – something that would have barely made a ripple in American consciousness no matter what Miller had done in Torino.
A reality that Lavin called "ignorant," noting, "In the United States, if you haven't done something in the Olympics, you're worthless."
But that was a stigma that certainly didn't resonate inside the U.S. ski community, where despite the chaos around Miller, few ever questioned his talent. He was a veteran of more than 400 World Cup races, a two-time overall champion, and had more natural ability than almost anyone coaches had seen.
And yet, Miller's ability always carried the question of the price tag that came with it. But U.S. coaches were willing to deal with that price, welcoming him back into the fold in September, despite hard feelings that existed in seemingly every corner of the program.
They were tangible in November, when during training in Copper Mountain, Colo., and a World Cup stop in Beaver Creek, Colo., Miller was still distinctly separate from the rest of the U.S. team. He wasn't expected to handle the same press responsibilities as other team members, he wasn't expected to be at every meeting, and at one point during training runs, was even staging his equipment almost 30 yards from the rest of his teammates.
These are the kinds of incidents U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick was referring to on Sunday, when he diplomatically danced around the difficulty of inserting Miller back into a team that had functioned for nearly 2½ years without him.
"It's always a little bit of a challenge," Rearick said. "It doesn't matter – anytime you add someone to a group, or take someone away from the group, the dynamics of the group do change."
And even with the passage of time, you could still feel the awkwardness of Miller's assimilation early this week. Something that was highlighted after he took bronze in the men's downhill, and one member of the U.S. Ski Team half-jokingly referred to it as "a sad day." The "sadness" wasn't because Miller had medaled, but because it wasn't someone, anyone else, on the team. Specifically, someone who hadn't vanished from the program for nearly 30 months.
But in the past week, there have been some tangible differences in Miller, too. Not so much in the way he interacts with the media, although he has certainly had some introspective press conferences. More so with his teammates, who have talked about seeing a more anxious, nervous and vulnerable Miller.
"You can tell he really wants [success]," U.S. teammate Steven Nyman. "He wants it bad."
Miller admitted that himself, in his own Bode way, talking about absorbing and focusing the emotion and excitement of the Games. He talked about knowing the special nature of these Games, and he interacted like he believed it.
You could see it Friday night, when Miller joined other members of the U.S. team at a Whistler bar, nursing a beer for part of the night. When the beer was finished, Miller didn't order a second one, but he didn't leave, either. Instead, he began periodically filling the bottle with water throughout the night, relaxing and engaging the U.S. ski program members who surrounded him.
"He was being mellow," said Lavin, who has been with Miller for seven years. "He was being grown up. He's getting smarter – skiing smarter and managing himself smarter."
Maybe that's the rub. Many believe the things that undermined Bode Miller four years ago are still there, but he has found a way to navigate them. While he still suggests that Olympic medals aren't as important as how he feels about his skiing, he also knows that when his best delivers a medal, it is something true and valuable.
Indeed, Vancouver was never about revenge against the critics. As Miller put it, "I don't know who I'd get revenge on. Myself, maybe?" Instead, it was about doing what he loved. It was about finding the child inside him – the one who skied without the distraction of politics or ego or expectation – and letting his talent carry the day. And if that meant gold, so be it.
"I sort of came back for a reason," Miller said. "This was why."
So goes the Millermorphosis. Back from the brink and the depths and a darker place. Back to where at least part of him – maybe the best part of him – can be embraced again.
But one reality still remains: Regardless of the success in Vancouver, the ability to fully understand Miller's emotions and motivations will always be elusive. Pinning down his psyche is something like catching a puff of smoke in your hands – you can reach for it, you can even attempt to close your fingers around it, but what you saw won't be there when you open your palms.
But in that darkness, Miller might have given reporters a bit of a landing strip after capturing his gold medal Sunday. Asked why he was so bitter back in 2005, just months before his collapse at the Games in Torino, Miller answered in a fashion that could have summed up his own career.
"The Olympics is definitely in my mind a two-sided coin," he said. "It has all the best things of sport. It has amazing energy, enthusiasm, passion, inspiration – it's what changes lives. In that sense, it's the pinnacle of what sports and camaraderie and all that stuff is. On the flip side of that is the opposite. And that's the corruption and the abuse and the money. That's what was bothering me. Being thrust in the middle of that, being the poster boy for that … was really draining on my inspiration, my level of passion."
There was so much irony in that statement. If anything, Miller now stands as the unmistakable two-sided coin of Alpine skiing. He has more Olympic medals in the sport than any other U.S. skier, but he has also put the program through more headaches than arguably anyone else over the last four years. He showed the immaturity of a terrible teammate in 2006, but then displayed some unmistakable growth and maturity in these Games. He can be his own worst enemy, but also lift himself like few others in his sport.
In the end, the truth may be that Bode Miller is all of what we have seen – bad and good, enigmatic and inspirational. And the metamorphosis we saw in Vancouver isn't so much the changing of an athlete, but that athlete's ability to strike the right balance between his best and worst qualities.
Bode Miller found that balance in these Games. And the result may be the only thing we'll ever be sure of about him: He has staked his territory as one of the greatest skiers the United States has ever produced.
He's finally got his gold. And that is something we can all close our hands around.