Miller's bronze his third Alpine medal

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- American Bode Miller did not win the Olympic men's downhill, but he at least was on the medals podium.

Switzerland's Didier Defago sped down the Dave Murray course in a gold medal-winning time of 1 minute, 54.31 seconds to match countryman Pirmin Zurbriggen's feat in the downhill at the 1988 Calgary Games -- the last time a Swiss man had won an Olympic gold in any Alpine event.

Miller, famously shut out of the medals four years ago in Turin, took home the bronze, finishing only 0.09 behind Defago.

Defending overall World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway took silver, a slim 0.07 seconds behind Defago.

Starting eighth, Miller took the early lead with a time of 1:54.40, but he was eventually topped by Svindal and then Defago, who was the 18th starter out of the gates.

"It was a huge relief to execute and ski well," Miller said. "Obviously it would've been great to be a little faster. I was psyched. I skied hard."

Having won two silvers at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Miller becomes the first American to win three medals in Alpine skiing at the Olympics. Phil Mahre, Tommy Moe, Picabo Street and Diann Roffe each won two medals.

Miller's medal is also the first for the U.S. in the men's downhill at the Olympics since Moe took a surprise gold at the 1994 Lillehammer Games.

Miller set the pace for the other race favorites, who started between 16th and 22nd. He said the course was darker when he skied than for the other favorites later on.

"That's what ski racing is about," he said. "It's always a mix. There definitely was light changing in the very beginning. It got progressively better, but definitely when I went the middle part was dark. That's where Aksel pulled eight-tenths back on me. That's the way ski racing goes. But I was happy with the way I skied."

Miller long has maintained he cares far more about producing laudable runs than earning medals or other accolades.

Asked to assess his Olympic legacy, Miller made an off-the-cuff reference to the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan fiasco in 1994, when Harding's husband helped plan an assault on figure skating rival Kerrigan ahead of the Lillehammer Games.

"You don't want to go the Tonya Harding route of winning medals," Miller said. "If you wanted just strictly to win medals, you could go through a whole long start list of racers and just go to their house in the offseason -- break a leg here, pull out a shoulder socket there -- and you'd probably have a whole bunch of medals by the end of your career."

Defago, a 32-year-old veteran, is the first Swiss man to win an Olympic medal since Zurbriggen in 1988. He was mistake-free in navigating the 3,105-meter course on Monday, which was the delayed opening event of the alpine skiing competition.

"The conditions were perfect for me," Defago said. "I knew I would do well, but I never expected to do this well. I had a great year with Wengen and Kitzbuehel. A medal had to come eventually for me."

At 32 years and 4 months, Defago became the oldest man to win the Olympic downhill, three months older than Frenchman Jean-Luc Cretier when he won at the 1998 Nagano Games.

Despite knowing several racers could catch him, Defago was already aware he had laid down a special run and nearly fell over backward into the padding lining the finish area as he celebrated with both arms in the air.

"He just nailed it right there. He didn't have an easy year because of the other guys who were taking the glory all the time," said Marco Buechel, the Liechtenstein skier who trains with the Swiss team. "Everybody on our team is really happy for him."

Svindal was the first to edge Miller, beating him by .02. Svindal's time was 1:54.38.

Miller won two silvers at the 2002 Games and a full load of world championship medals before he went bust in Turin four years ago, making more headlines for his late-night partying than his skiing.

Miller also failed to win a medal at the 2007 and 2009 world championships and considered retiring over the summer before the Olympics lured him back for a shot at redeeming himself.

Rocking back and forth as a team member psyched him up with screams and yells in the starting house, Miller began his run solidly, tucking at every opportunity on the upper gliding sections.

Miller was nearly a full second -- 0.97 -- faster than the previous leader, David Poisson of France, at the second checkpoint.

Always one of the most exciting skiers to watch, Miller flailed his arms out to maintain his balance on the turns and jumps, drawing "oohs" and "ahs" from the crowd, and pulled himself back into his aerodynamic tuck for the straightaways.

Perhaps still not 100 percent physically after skipping summer training while he debated his future, Miller lost nearly half a second on the bottom of the course, and appeared on the verge of exhaustion as he had a bit of a tough time landing the final jump leading into the finish line.

In the finish area, Miller's mouth curled up into a smile as he pumped his head on his fists in satisfaction or -- perhaps more likely -- frustration, since he probably already knew it wouldn't be enough for victory.

"I was super nervous all morning. There was no question the excitement's there," Miller told CTV in Canada before his third-place finish was official. "Generally, if you want to get the best performance out of yourself, you kind of have to downplay that excitement in your own head and perform like it's a normal World Cup. You execute your tactics real well, and if you get all riled up and let yourself get overexcited and super nervous, especially at my age, you'd probably have a heart attack.

"I wanted to let it go. I was definitely fired up. I went out of the start like I wanted to win this thing. This is a unique opportunity to feed off the crowd's energy and all the energy around the whole Games. I'm gonna keep doing it and hopefully I'll make less mistakes, and if I make less mistakes, I'm gonna be on top.

"[Today's result] doesn't really change much about how I feel about the races coming up except that I know I'm gonna be fired up and going for the win."

Austria's Mario Scheiber made a run at Miller, making up time on the bottom part of the course, but finished .12 behind him in 1:54.52. Scheiber started 15th. Scheiber has a second and a fourth in World Cup downhills this year.

Canada's Erik Guay, starting right behind Miller, finished in 1:54.64.

American Steven Nyman finished in 1:55.71, while teammate Andrew Weibrecht finished in 1:55.74.

Marco Sullivan, the fourth American on the course, crashed but eventually finished in 2:07.76. He was more than 13 seconds behind the leaders.

Switzerland's Didier Cuche, who led the World Cup downhill standings heading into the Games, finished in 1:54.62. Teammate Carlo Janka, second in the World Cup downhill standings heading into the Games, finished in 1:55.02.

"It was really close and I can't really understand why I was slow on the finish part," Cuche said. "Normally, I'm a good finisher. But when I saw the crowd really quiet down here, I knew that was not like I wanted. I'm going to enjoy the night with Didier. He deserved it and it's good for the Swiss nation."

After two days of delay, the Alpine program finally began at Whistler Creekside. Temperatures were in the upper 20s as the competition got under way at 1:30 p.m. ET.

Conditions were still overcast Monday but the temperature fell below freezing overnight, making the course hard enough for skiers to dig their edges in and maintain control at speeds up to nearly 75 mph.

Flat and dim light created some visibility problems, although there was none of the mid-mountain fog that has plagued the Alpine venue the past several days.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.