KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA – This was supposed to be Bode Miller’s coronation, his chance at history, his moment.
He was supposed to fly down a treacherous mountain faster than anyone else one last time and then take his bow, the way all great champions should.
He started fast, looked primed and then … wait, what does that electronic timer say?
Miller maneuvered the Olympic men’s downhill slower than seven competitors and then blamed his performance on a change in weather conditions.
A day that began with a palpable buzz of anticipation ended with excuses as Miller placed eighth in 2 minutes, 6.75 seconds in one of the Winter Olympics’ premier events at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center.
Austria’s Matthias Mayer took gold in 2:06.23.
Miller didn’t even turn in the best American time. That distinction went to Travis Ganong, who finished fifth in 2:06.64.
Miller was attempting to win his sixth Olympic medal and, at age 36, become the oldest man to medal in an Alpine event. A medal would have cemented his status as one of the greatest U.S. Winter Olympians ever.
History might still remember him that way, but his explanation of what went wrong Sunday probably won’t earn him too many sympathy votes among fans. If anything, the guy who earned a reputation as a wild, brash rebel once again refused to budge an inch or concede defeat.
“It’s tough when you have to judge yourself because the clock doesn’t really seem to judge you fairly,” Miller said. “Just like I’ve said a million times, I’m not always so attached to the result. I would have loved to get a gold medal or any medal. I felt like I skied OK.”
A day earlier, Miller said the 2.17-mile course could kill somebody because of icy conditions that saw racers reach speeds approaching 85 miles per hour. Ten racers failed to finish in the final training run Saturday.
Miller seemed to embrace the difficult setup and entered Sunday’s race as a heavy favorite after winning two of three practice runs.
Asked what changed between practice and race, Miller replied, “Just conditions.”
“Training runs were bluebird [sky], perfect visibility and hard snow,” he said. “That’s the perfect conditions to see who’s the best racer. [Sunday] the visibility went away, temperatures are warmer so the course breaks down a little bit.”
Overcast skies reduced visibility on the course, which Miller said affected his approach.
“I ski a bit more on the edge than most guys, so I don’t have as much tolerance for not being able to see the snow,” he said. “I need to know where the snow is in the beginning of the turn, middle of the turn. I need to know where the bumps are because I’m right on the edge. And especially after skiing the training runs the way I did, when the visibility goes a little south like it did, it’s really hard to just know that you’re in an Olympic race, when medals are on the line and you really want to win, to know that you’re going to dial it back to 80 percent.”
Miller had a strong start, but he appeared to make a mistake in the middle portion when he clipped a gate. Miller said he made a few “little mistakes” but nothing that should have severely affected his run.
Ganong, his teammate, offered a different opinion.
“He had one mistake on this pretty critical turn that goes into a flat section,” Ganong said. “If you lose your speed there, it’s just a losing battle from there to the finish. He crushed the top. He just had one little mistake.”
In all likelihood, this was Miller’s final Olympic downhill competition. He appeared to be in good spirits in Sochi as he prepared for the downhill. But a disappointing finish culminated with him standing at the bottom of the hill for an unusually long time, contemplating what went wrong.
“I like to make sure that I know what my judgment of myself was on a given day before I go submitting myself to everyone else’s criticism or judgment or opinions,” he said. “This can be a tough one to swallow, having skied so well in the training runs and then come in and be way out of the medals. But I think I skied really well, honestly. I was super-aggressive. The conditions didn’t favor me, but I think all things considered I skied really well.”