By the time Bode Miller reached the finish, the air of disappointment was palpable. Rather than the expected coronation and celebration, American fans stood silent in the grandstands, while his wife—professional beach volleyball player Morgan Beck—merely stared in disbelief. All Miller could do was crouch over his skis, shoulders and head slumped.
After winning two training runs, Miller couldn't live up to his favorite status in Sunday's men's Olympic downhill, finishing a disappointing eighth place, over half a second behind gold medalist Matthias Mayer of Austria. As Miller prophetically reminded the media all week, fast training times don't equal gold medals.
On paper, it was an ill-timed impact with a gate that ended Miller's chances of victory. After setting the fastest time on the track's technical upper section, the five-time Olympic vet looked poised to replicate the speed he'd showcased in training. If he had, he would have become the oldest ever Alpine gold medalist. Instead, Miller let his line run low in the course's mid-section, was forced to hurl himself through a panel gate and scrubbed precious momentum going into the critical lower section.
Miller would later tell reporters he switched tactics on race day, believing a tighter, riskier line was required to win.
"The visibility has changed a ton from the training run," Miller said. "The middle and bottom of the course slowed so much from the beginning of the race until I went that I thought you have to do something magical to win."
On closer inspection, however, Miller's problems started well before that glaring mistake. In stark contrast to the relaxed and effortless skiing we saw in training, the five-time Olympic medal winner seemed to be charging too hard out of the gate, jamming his edges instead of executing smooth turns and making small mistakes from start to finish. On the all important Lake Jump (which sends skiers on a 60 meter flight), Miller was so off balance that he became twisted mid-flight, looking more like a freestyle skier than a racer.
For the New Hampshire native, this race day flameout appeared to be a case of wanting the win too badly. Of course every skier who stands in the starting gate dreams of gold, but for Miller these Games are the last chance to a put a cherry on top of a storied career. And nothing would have given his Olympic career a more dramatic conclusion than gold in Alpine's marquee event, the downhill.
After sitting out last season to recover from knee surgery, Miller came into these Games in arguably the best shape of his life, leaving little doubt that Sochi was his main objective. Unlike the aloof, almost petulant attitude he displayed in Torino, where he entered the Games as a legitimate threat in all five Alpine events, only to leave without a medal (claiming he had more fun partying than skiing), Miller came to Sochi in high spirits, laying down the gauntlet in training and stating that it was a "pleasure for me to ski on this track."
Of course Miller didn't need to redeem himself in Sunday's downhill. He already did that four years ago in Vancouver, where he collected a gold, silver and bronze in three events, becoming America's most decorated male Alpine racer of all time. But Miller is a competitor with a legacy at stake, and he'll certainly want to leave his mark on these Sochi Games.
Fortunately, he'll have a chance to do just that in Thursday's combined, an event in which Miller is the defending Olympic champion.
Published at 5:03 PM PST on Feb 9, 2014