par Patrick Lang
SOELDEN, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Once the poster boy of American winter sports, Bode Miller returned to the slopes on Sunday following an 18-month absence to a very different skiiing landscape.
Forced to rest his bruised and battered limbs after undergoing surgery on a knee that has troubled him for more than a decade, a lean and fit Miller made his comeback on the Austrian glacier of Soelden.
After finishing 19th in the season opener, the five-times Olympic medallist is under no illusion about his prospects in February's Sochi Olympics -- especially within an American team being touted as one of the strongest ever.
"I haven't felt that bad probably since I skied here maybe six years or so ago, I just bounced the whole way down. You know its nerves really...," 36-year-old said.
"The expectations at this point, especially for the Olympics, are pretty pointless. I'm healthy and I'm out there, ready to race.
"I'm always attempting to win races and I think that I have the ability but there's a lot of stuff out of my control beyond that.
"I didn't come back for the Olympics, I've been to four before, I don't think that one more will change much at this point. I came back because I had the chance too."
While Lindsey Vonn has long been the flag-bearer of American skiing, others made their mark during Miller's absence.
Ted Ligety stole the spotlight in the last world championships by winning three gold medals, while teenager Mikaela Shiffrin has emerged as one of the most gifted slalom specialists.
Ligety started the season in style by winning the Soelden giant slalom for the third year in succession and Miller said that success will spur on the other Americans in the team.
"Right now we have a very healthy environment, with our coaches being around for so long, we have Ted... and the girls doing so well. When the coaches get the feeling of knowing what the success is and how to manage it, it makes it really well for other athletes too," he said.
Since the 1997-1998 season, Miller, the son of a hippie couple from Franconia, has been one of the standout personalities in his sport.
While his rivals will be determined to chase gold in Russia, Miller has other goals.
"For me skiing will always be fun no matter. Racing has been fun since the beginning," said Miller, who became a father for the second time and got married during his enforced break.
Once the wild man of the circuit, he has now embraced a more settled life and his wife, pro beach volleyball player and model Morgan Beck, travels with him during the season.
"Having the most important people around you is definitely an important thing to have when you are on the road. I have my family here and it feels like a logical step and I feel good about it," he said. (Reporting by Patrick Lang, editing by Pritha Sarkar)