Bode Miller likely exits Olympic stage older, wiser and as the greatest U.S. men's Alpine skier

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — If this was indeed the end for Bode Miller, his Sochi exit lacked any ceremony. And after his turbulent 16-year adventure as a U.S. Olympian, that probably suits him.

Miller came down in his second giant slalom run on Wednesday with a balky, time-dragging left knee dropping him into 20th place. He went into mixed zone talking about how he'd see if he could bounce back for one final slalom run. But by the time he exited the interviews, it was clear he had just completed his final race in Russia, and perhaps the Olympics as well.

"It's tough to have my last race here look like this," said Miller, who plans to continue the World Cup season. "But I feel really good about where I'm at. I came back really strong."

Scroll to continue with content

[Photos: Bode Miller's Olympic career]

That would be that. When the sun came up again in Sochi, Miller was gone, on a plane and out of view. No big sendoff. No final exit interviews scheduled. It was just ... over.

In some ways it's a little unusual, particularly when you look at Miller's Olympic accomplishments. With six medals, he is tied with Bonnie Blair for the second-most Winter Games medals by a U.S. athlete. Blair was on a Kellogg's Corn Flakes box, and the press could hardly wipe away the tears fast enough to write the Olympic farewell tributes during the 1994 Lillehammer Games.

No such luck for Miller.

In fairness, Blair was the Olympic triple threat: multiple gold medals, flawless personal life and pristine relationship with the media. Miller? When you're done with him, you count the gray hairs on your head and be thankful any are left.

U.S. men's ski coach Sasha Rearick actually made that joke at one point during these Games. It was funny, and people laughed — only because everyone knew it was probably true. But Rearick was respectful, too.

"Not only will it be a loss to U.S. skiing but (also) to the ski world," he said of Miller's eventual retirement.

[Video: How Ted Ligety made history]

Those who watched him through his Olympic journey — beginning with the 1998 Nagano Games — know he's the purest men's skiing talent ever produced in the United States. And that's without rattling off the World Cup success: 33 wins across five disciplines, 78 podiums, a No. 1 overall ranking in 2005 and '08. Even without the stats, casual fans could watch Miller race his best and know he was special. You could see greatness in him.

Even that comes with a touch of melancholy. Those closest to him know that if 36-year-old Bode Miller could impart his wisdom to 20-year-old Bode Miller, his six total medals (one gold, three silver, two bronze) would likely be more plentiful.

Then again, the 20-year-old would likely laugh, throw up a middle finger and crash through a fence with his hair on fire. In the wider view of Miller's career, that's probably the truest takeaway. We've seen the whole cycle of maturation. He's not the same guy who made the Olympics at 20, busted out for two silver medals at 24 and then imploded at 28. The guy who departs is older, clearly wiser and fairly beaten up from the experience.

He's the one who became the oldest man in Alpine to win a medal with a Sochi bronze in super-G, but he lamented that it didn't make up for mistakes that cost him in the downhill.

"Missing opportunities, unfortunately, is just what it sounds like," Miller said. "It's just missed opportunities."

He's the one who pushed his line to failure in a race and repeated something that you would have expected to hear from one of his coaches.

"A mistake that I've sort of dealt with a lot in my career," Miller said, "pushing too hard in a spot [where] there's nothing to do."

[Video: Mancuso not hanging up the tiara just yet]

Of course, even now some critics will always see him through the lens of his failures. He's certainly not perfect. His personal life continues to be tantalizing fodder for the media. Even his skiing still showcases the same mistakes born of his push-first mentality.

But the circumstances surrounding Miller are different. The reflective nature is new. The raw emotion and disappointment are far more available. All of it thanks to a dividing line that began to take hold around the 2010 Vancouver Games and extend beyond. Since 2006, he has become a father twice. He got married. He seemed less maniacal. Teammates and coaches, who revolted against his behavior between the 2006 and 2010 Games, were said to be grumbling less about his exploits and attitude. And when he won gold, silver and bronze in Vancouver, the press embraced him anew.

All of which brought Miller to Sochi, despite many believing 2010 could be his swan song. A 36-year-old Miller arrived with his wife, Morgan, and was clearly still coping with the loss of his younger brother, Chelone. He had taken a year off skiing to recover from knee surgery, too, and nobody was quite sure what to expect.

What unfolded was almost the perfect metaphor for Miller's career. At times, he disappointed. At times, he inspired. The single biggest headline of his experience in Sochi — whether an NBC reporter made him cry — came off the mountain. And unfortunately, it distracted from what happened just before the tears.

Before the NBC incident, when he was on the verge of putting down the run that would win him his record-setting bronze in super-G, cameras caught Miller standing alone and talking to the sky.

[Related: Predicted final medal count: Can Team USA finish on top?]

He would later say he was asking for help from his wife, his family, his brother — all of those closest to him. He figured he needed a few more hundredths of a second and could use anything they could give him on the way down. It was a touching scene that provided some depth.

Miller would tell you that at 20 years old that moment never would have happened. He would have believed he didn't need anyone else on the mountain. But at 36, with a failing body and a softer heart, things change.

Miller once said: "Some days medals don't really matter if you ski the way you want to ski."

In retrospect, he got both. He won his medals skiing the runs his way. When he left, he exited as a man who was older, happier and far quieter than anyone could have imagined.

More Winter Olympics coverage on Yahoo Sports:

What to Read Next