VAIL, Colo. -- Hannes Reichelt of Austria became the oldest world champion in alpine ski racing history Thursday, winning the super-G on a mountain that has brought him more success than any other during his 13-year career.
But the lasting image of the event was not Reichelt pumping his fists in the finish corral to celebrate his victory. It was 37-year-old Bode Miller flipping backward at 60 mph, while he tried to become the oldest world champion in history.
In case anyone forgot during Miller's 11-month absence from racing, there is no skier more exciting to watch -- and there might never be. And now his career is in question after it was revealed he suffered a torn hamstring tendon in the crash and had surgery to repair it. The injury takes at least two months to heal.
Starting ninth in his first race since last March, Miller was leading the competition by more than a half-second early on and still led by .12 seconds when he carved too strongly out of a turn and hooked his left arm on a gate panel three-quarters of the way down the Birds of Prey course, in a section called "the Abyss." What followed was violent. The panel ripped Miller's pole out of his hand and spun him around, catching his ski edges on the snow. His right ski ejected into the air, then the left ski ripped off as Miller tumbled backward, head over heels, at racing speed. During the crash, Miller's left ski sliced through his speed suit and left a deep laceration in his right calf, just above his boot.
Miller collected his skis and gingerly made his way to the bottom of the course, where his wife and son were waiting. A camera shot of his gaping wound drew a gasp from the crowd when shown on the big screen. A race official wrapped gauze around the gash, and Miller soon left the venue to have surgery at Vail Valley Medical Center.
"He was having an amazing run, he was going for a medal, he was back, pushing harder than I've seen him push all year, and it was working," fellow U.S. racer Travis Ganong said. "But he just got a little unlucky, got pushed into that gate, caught his arm, and that's it."
Ganong, who missed a gate and failed to finish, talked to Miller immediately after the crash. "He said his whole body really hurt," Ganong said. "He said he felt like he got hit by a truck. He told me he needed, like, 100 stitches probably."
Miller, a four-time world champion and six-time Olympic medalist, was coming off back surgery in November. He had been cautious with his return to racing and skipped a handful of World Cup events to allow maximum recovery time before the world championships, which are taking place in the U.S. for the first time in 16 years. Sasha Rearick, the U.S. head coach, said Miller told him immediately after the crash that his back was fine.
Rearick was standing right in front of the Abyss when Miller crashed.
"Bode was putting down a run that inspired America, inspired the world," Rearick said. "When he's having a run, as a coach on the hill, you're excited. You see him doing stuff, and the way he came into [my] view was hands in front of him, looking for every hundredth of a second, then that crash happened so quick. When you see something like that live, your emotions go straight to the athlete: Is he OK?"
Miller waved while sliding on his back, indicating he was all right. But the sight was unnerving for the racers who still had to ski. American Andrew Weibrecht, who tied for 19th with teammate Steven Nyman, said he looked away from the video feed when he saw Miller start to tumble.
"You don't expect that from [Miller]," Nyman said, "but you expect him to bring that intensity. And that's him; sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't."
"He was skiing good, like perfect," said Reichelt, who at 34 gave Austria its second world championship in two races here. "My goal was to do the same."
Norwegian star Aksel Lund Svindal, the 2010 Olympic super-G champion, who was making his own return from injury Thursday (he ruptured his Achilles in October and began training only last week), said the simple fact that Miller entered the race was a boon, never mind his crash. "That's how you create history, and that's good for the sport," Svindal said.
"Had he been 2 inches farther away from that gate, you'd be saying something totally different about his run and everybody would be super psyched," said Ted Ligety, who, like many racers, struggled in softer-than-usual snow and finished ninth while defending his 2013 world title. "That's the sport of ski racing. The difference between glory and biting the dust is a matter of centimeters."