Old men are not supposed to win gold medals in Olympic alpine ski races. In fact, no man over 34 has won an Olympic skiing medal.
Bode Miller is 36. You would think the New Hampshire native would not risk competing at his age. But he is – the Sochi Winter Games will be his fifth Olympics – and he’s still amazingly competitive.
Based on his performance on his first training run Thursday, he is the man to beat in the downhill event. He placed first, edging out some formidable competitors, including Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, the five-time downhill world champion and Olympic gold medalist, and Canada’s top contender for a podium finish, Erik Guay.
Later, at a packed media conference – Miller can still draw a crowd – he pronounced himself in top competitive form, even better than he was in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where he grabbed a gold, a silver and a bronze.
“I’ve been skiing technically really well and my fitness is really high,” he said. “I think I am in a much better spot this year than I was in 2010. … I managed to pull my fitness together by the time it came to race the [Vancouver] Olympics, but not nearly where I am now. I was very fatigued. I was losing a lot of time at the bottom of the courses.”
But Miller could equally blow up Sunday, when the glam alpine Olympic event – the men’s downhill – takes place on the same course where he injured his knee two years ago, during a test run.
Miller takes wild chances that sometimes vault him into first place after spectacular recoveries but often send him hurtling into the crash nets. “For 16 years, he has built a reputation as an uberathletic, win-or-crash-trying daredevil who pushes the line between safety and success,” Wayne Drehs wrote in the Feb. 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Certainly, Miller’s results in the current season suggest a podium finish is not assured in Sochi. He has been all over the map, with several top-five finishes in recent World Cup events but also no shortage of mediocre to bad runs. And while he was a star in Vancouver, he failed to secure a medal at the 2006 Turin Games.
Miller pronounced himself relaxed ahead of the downhill medal race Sunday. The Olympics are nothing new to him. “It’s not just the same after you’ve done it so many times,” he said.
If Miller is to win at Sochi, he will have to get around Svindal first. The Norwegian’s eighth-place finish in Thursday’s training run was somewhat out of character. He has won five World Cup races this season, and placed second or third in several others.
Sochi could emerge as a battle between the two men – the erratic-though-brilliant American against the cool, calculating Norwegian.
“Aksel is super consistent, rock solid, doesn’t take risks very often,” Miller said. “The risks he takes is always calculated … I more or less ski with the intent to push myself.”
It is assumed Sochi will be Miller’s last Olympics, especially since he seems to be settling into domestic life with his new wife, Morgan Miller, a pro beach volleyball player who is in Sochi as a fan.
If he wins gold here, Miller will make Olympic history. The downhill will be the race to watch, as observers know it will push him to edge of his ability – and perhaps beyond.