Miller solidifies legacy with gold

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- OK. No more jokes. No more one-liners about slalom gates in the nightclubs, breathalyzer tests on the slope and training sessions in the hot tub. Bode Miller is a gold medalist and after that and his past week, well, we in the American media will just have to find another convenient punch line.

(Thank you, Tiger Woods.)

Bode has skied in four Olympics on three continents during three presidential administrations. He has crashed, missed slalom gates, been disqualified and been disgraced. He has won three silver medals and one bronze. And Sunday afternoon he won the super combined to finally grab the last remaining ring on the Olympic carousel, the one prize that qualifies him as a champion in the eyes of mainstream America far more than all he's achieved on the World Cup circuit.

"Bode has now done everything you can in skiing," U.S. teammate Will Brandenburg said. "He's won World Cup races. He's won World Cup titles. He's won medals in every color and now he's got the gold. That's big. He's one of the best skiers of all time now and no one can discredit that."

So after 12 years as an Olympic skier, after committing what his father terms "image suicide" four years ago in Torino, after leaving the sport and coming back renewed, what does it feel like to finally win the gold?

"The actual gold medal doesn't mean that much," Bode said. "If I had won it in a way that I wasn't excited about or that I wasn't proud of, I would have resented the gold medal in a way, regardless of what anyone else thinks. … The medals are kind of a distraction as much as anything because they make people think I'm proud of the races because of the medals. But I was proud of the race when I crossed the finish line and didn't know whether I would win or not.

"I think, if anything, it means less to me now than it would have earlier. Earlier I didn't have the same peace of mind about my skiing and my sense of self. I am 32. I've gone through a lot in the last 15 years."

That may not be how you or I would feel, but Bode and public opinion haven't always been on the same page.

After winning two silvers at Salt Lake in 2002, Bode went into Torino as the official face of America's Olympic hopes, a prohibitive favorite to win multiple gold medals, appearing on so many magazine covers you would have thought he was having an affair with Angelina Jolie. But a funny thing happened on the way to the finish line. He talked about skiing drunk on "60 Minutes." He lived apart from the U.S. team, staying in his own private motor home. About the only times his fellow Americans saw him were during races and when he straggled into their accommodations to use the bathroom.

Gee, Bode, thanks for the quality bonding time. And could you please light a match?

The whole problem in Torino, Bode said Sunday, was "I didn't necessarily want to be there and I also didn't want to not be there. I was incredibly conflicted. I had no intention of blowing it, I raced as hard as I could but I didn't have this motivation, I didn't have the energy and enthusiasm."

Asked to elaborate, Miller went on. "IOC bashing is probably not the ideal line to go through but in my mind the Olympics are a two-sided coin," he said. "It has all the best things of sport. It has amazing energy, passion, inspiration. It's what changes lives. In that sense it's the pinnacle of what sport and camaraderie is. The flip side is the corruption and the abuse and the money. I'm not pointing fingers but that's what was bothering me. Being thrust in the middle of that and being the poster boy for that when it's the absolute thing I despise the most in the world, was really draining my inspiration and my level of passion and those are the things I draw on most when I'm racing, so I had the plug pulled on my fuel source."

Bode also pulled it on himself. He was disqualified from one race, failed to finish another and was stalked by paparazzi. He did not win a medal (fifth was his best finish) and the American poster boy heading into Torino left the Olympics as an easy joke, the symbol of a spoiled athlete who didn't take his sport seriously enough.

"I've been to Europe and seen what it's like for him there," said his father, Woody Miller. "There are people all over him all the time. I think he felt that if he did something good at Torino, his life was going to get worse.

"He likes to say that he doesn't care what people think but that was so much that I'm sure it hurt him. I think it's what his sister said and I thought, 'He's a ski racer, basically, and when he started to be more like a role model for how everyone is supposed to be, he basically committed image suicide.'"

Consider that image repaired. This year he is staying with the rest of the team in a Whistler condo, training with them, eating with them, watching TV with them and generally being a teammate. "Surprisingly enough, we have a pretty clean bathroom," said 2006 gold medalist Ted Ligety, who finished fifth. "We both flush the toilet."

He took the bronze in the downhill Monday, the silver in the super-G on Friday and woke up Sunday "feeling pretty whipped" from the week and a training crash. Still, he had full range of movement and was seventh in the morning downhill of the combined, 0.76 of a second behind leader Aksel Lund Svindal.

Miller has struggled with the slalom some in recent years, but he attacked the top of the course as if he were filming the opening scene in a Bond movie and held on at the bottom to take the race lead. The six skiers ahead of him in the morning downhill followed, but none could match his time. When Svindal, already trailing, missed a gate near the finish, Miller had his gold medal.

He is arguably the greatest skier in American history. He's won two World Cup titles. He's won five Olympic medals. No other man has won more. He's won three medals in this Olympics. No male skier ever won more in a single Games.

And, as Ligety informs us, he also is toilet-trained, which must come in handy now that Bode has an infant daughter to raise. Some say that becoming a father matured Miller, which is likely true. But he insists that isn't the difference in these Games. Part of it is luck, but mostly it's putting aside everything bad about the Olympics -- the politics and gross commercialism and the official Vancouver 2010 cowbells that cost $36 -- to embrace everything that is good about the Games and "using the Olympics the way they're supposed to be, as an inspirational tool."

"I let all that stuff go and raced like I was a little kid," Bode said Sunday.

Perhaps, but listening to him, it sounded like he also was all grown up.

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