KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — There’s a point in “Downhill Racer” when an American coach confronts a self-centered, troublesome, but extremely talented skier, his country’s best hope for Olympic gold.
“All you ever had was skis,” the coach tells him. “And that’s not enough.”
Soon Bode Miller, so like Robert Redford’s headstrong character in the 1969 film, will find out if the skis were enough.
Thirty-six now, he’s not yet over the hill. But he’s been at its summit for a while, and he can see there’s not far to travel.
On Sunday, Miller earned his U.S.-record sixth Olympic medal, a bronze in the Super-G. In a race won by Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud, American Andrew Weibrecht took silver, temporarily easing criticism of the U.S. ski team. Canada’s Jan Hudec tied Miller to claim a bronze as well.
Jansrud finished 0.3 seconds ahead of Weibrecht and 0.53 seconds ahead of Miller and Hudec. America’s Ted Ligety finished 14th, 1.34 seconds off the pace.
As seems always to be the case with the sport’s bad boy, Miller was disappointed in his third-place run. He might have done better, he said, if he’d countered his instincts and been less aggressive.
“I won’t ski that way,” Miller said. ” … If you ski like you’re invincible, a lot of times you stay invincible.”
Invincible maybe, but not immortal.
Miller knows the end of his brilliant career is near. But how and when it will end still seem a puzzle.
Olympic and World Cup races satisfy his passion to be the fastest man on the hill. That passion clearly hasn’t been quenched.
After becoming the oldest skier ever to win an Alpine medal Sunday, he said he’ll compete in Thursday’s giant slalom and perhaps even next Sunday’s slalom. For sentimental reasons, he’s also planning on hanging around for the 2015 World Championships at Vail, Colo.
“Beyond that,” he said, “it’s really hard to tell.”
No one, more than likely not even Miller himself, expects him to ski in a sixth Olympics at age 40.
That may be why he was uncharacteristically emotional at the end of Sunday’s super-G at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, embracing his wife at the finish line and burying his head in her shoulder.
“I’ve been through a lot of major championships and a lot of Olympics,” he said, “and this one was a little different. … It was very raw and emotional for me.”
What made it so was the series of personal and professional difficulties he experienced in the year before these 2014 Winter Olympics — the death of a younger brother, a nasty custody fight, the long and painful battle to recover from serious knee surgery.
As troubling as the other incidents were, it was the knee injury, the surgery, and all those months away from the slopes that forced Miller to ponder life without skis.
“It was one of those injuries that certainly could have been the end of my career,” he said. “If I hadn’t recovered, I’d have walked away happy and just moved on.”
But moved on to what?
Skiing has been Miller’s existence. The identity it helped him forge — that of an iconoclast who partied as hard as he practiced — doesn’t translate easily to a practical future.
He could become a ski coach, he admitted, but “I’m probably going to coach horses.”
Miller understands he’s been as fortunate as he’s been good to survive as long as he has in the risky business of rocketing down mountains.
When he was 22, a reporter asked him to identify his grandest goal. The answer he gave seems oddly philosophical now, but back then was seen as just another example of his arrogance.
“I said my biggest goal is to not kill myself,” Miller said. “I felt like over time I was going to improve, and if you’re committed to the process, as long as you can stay healthy, you keep taking steps to get better.
“But I watched friend after friend, competitor after competitor go by the wayside. Knee braces. Back injections. ACL. Stuff constantly happens.”
Invincible, he kept barreling full-speed ahead. It helped him not just to survive but to become one of the most successful Alpine skiers of all time.
“In skiing, if you back off and ski a little tentative, you’re almost more likely to get hurt,” he said, in what could be his life’s motto as well.
Here at the Sochi Games, that style wasn’t suited for the conditions created by the unseasonable warmth. He made an aggressive mistake that cost him in the downhill and a few more in the combined. Even after his medal-winning run Sunday, Miller was kicking himself the way he might after finishing 12th.
“Today was one of those struggles,” he said. “Emotionally, it felt like a true struggle. I’m skiing well enough that I could have gotten a medal a lot easier.”
Could he fix things in the giant slalom and, though less likely, the slalom and walk away from his fifth, and likely last, Olympics with a seventh or even eighth medal?
He is, after all, just two medals shy of the record of eight set by Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt.
“I’m not far off,” he said, an excited twinkle returning to his eyes. “I think given the right conditions, I expect to be really fast.”
Bode Miller has rarely been anything else.
But if he isn’t, the world might find out sooner than it expected whether the skis were enough for Bode Miller.