Miller catches the Olympic fever

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- After flying nearly half a mile down the face of Whistler Mountain to win his third Olympic medal (most in American alpine history), Bode Miller began navigating an even more demanding slalom course. And he never missed a gate.

Walking from the finish line to a news conference with a drug-testing official constantly trailing, Miller held a cell phone in his left hand while speaking to someone from the Europe-based Sky network. He held a Sharpie in his right hand while scribbling autograph after autograph -- no last name, just Bode -- on everything thrust his way: American flags, ticket stubs, shirts, cowbells. Bode paused to pose for photos, slap high-fives, shake hands and exchange hugs as fans shouted, "You're the man!" and "I knew you were going to do it!" and "Thanks, Bode!" and "We're proud of you!"

Just imagine what the reaction would have been had he won the gold medal and not the bronze.

This was the way it was supposed to be four years ago in Torino. But that was before the infamous "skiing drunk" interview, before the lackluster performances, before the late-night decathlon of bars. Before what Bode referred to Monday as all the "environmental stimulation" of the Olympics.

Well, you know. One man's environmental stimulation is another's weekend in Vegas.

"The situations are so different," Bode said of this Olympics and the last. "I always ski hard, but this feels different because of my emotional state. I let myself go more now. In Torino, I was ready to win, I was capable of winning and I executed pretty well in a couple of races. But I wasn't emotionally involved in the races. I was treating them very cold and clinical, and just executing my plan and seeing if I won. Today, we didn't really know what the plan was going to be. There were too many variables and no one knew what to expect or what it would take to win. It felt good to ski more wide open."

In other words, Bode said, Monday "felt like the Olympics."

"Normally, as the veteran of 400 World Cup races, you try to repress that feeling because it doesn't help you ski better," he said. "You tend to get over-amped up and make mistakes and do dumb stuff because you're too fired up. That's part of the reason I wanted to come back. I wanted that feeling."

Could this really be true? Were we hearing things? Bode Miller embracing the Olympic spirit so passionately that the two of them really ought to get a hotel room?

Well, it's about time.

After winning two silver medals in 2002, Miller was expected to win so many medals in 2006 that you would never, ever want to be behind him in the airport security line. Then he went oh-for-Torino and shrugged it off by saying the Olympics were no big deal. Then he left the U.S. team to ski on his own. Then he left the sport briefly last spring. He returned to skiing and the American team at the start of October as a new father and what other U.S. skiers say is a better teammate. It took him awhile to get his legs back, but he won a World Cup super-combined last month and put down a dazzling run Monday in the much-delayed downhill.

"You feel the Olympics and you get chills and nervous and a little scared," Bode said of his emotions in the start house. "You go through the emotional roller coaster at what it's like to compete at the Olympic level and you let that run through your whole body."

The eighth skier out of the start house, Miller owned the top of the course, risking all and gaining nearly a second lead by the second split. But there was no sun on the slope for the early skiers and he said he was unable to see the little variations in the middle of the course. That cost him precious time -- Miller finished just 0.02 of a second behind silver medalist Aksel Lund Svindal and 0.09 behind gold medalist Didier Defago of Switzerland. The time difference isn't even enough to throw back a shot of Jagermeister, but Bode didn't complain. He's raced long enough to know course variables are part of the sport.

Besides, he said, he just as easily could have finished fourth and not reached the podium for the first time in eight years to receive the medal that gave him the American record (though he's still missing that all-important gold).

"I think he's the best skier in U.S. history. For sure," teammate Marco Sullivan said. "I never got the chance to see the Mahre brothers ski that much, but of my generation, he's the best."

"Bode over his career, since he was 19 years old, has been innovative and pushed the limits of the sport," U.S. ski coach Sasha Rearick said. "Today's run was that. He came out of the gate charging as hard as anybody could. In certain parts it paid off and in other parts it wasn't necessarily the fastest but it was an inspiring run to watch."

Funny that he used the word inspiration. Bode used it as well, saying he came back so he could race these Olympics in the "right fashion. To race with inspiration and allow myself to be inspired."

The Olympics, Bode said, "They're different, they're more important, there is more stuff to them, certainly there are more press people around. More environmental stimulation. There's more energy. I think that can be really positive if you feed off it. I've tried to repress that in the past and taken it like it's just another World Cup race. That can help you get a better result for yourself but it's definitely a lot less fun."

Inspiration? Emotion? Geez. The next thing you know, he'll be writing speeches for Jacques Rogge. Or commercials for NBC.

"One of the really important things about the Olympics is, to enjoy yourself, you have to accept that it's different and feed off the enthusiasm of everyone and the inspiration and hopefully that will elevate your performance," he said.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.