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Published: Saturday, 2/20/2010

Miller proves his mettle in Alpine events

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WHISTLER, B.C. - Leave it to Bode Miller to bring a little trash talk to Alpine skiing.

After his silver and Andrew Weibrecht's bronze behind winner Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway in yesterday's super-G, Miller was asked to explain why the Americans have been dominating the slopes with six medals through four races at these Olympics.

Miller smiled that here-comes-a-good-one smile of his and began, "Aside from the fact that we're just much better than everybody else ..."

Can't really argue with the guy.

With six events still to go, the United States already has collected its most Alpine medals at a single Winter Games, topping the five at Sarajevo in 1984. Norway is the only other country with more than one medal so far, thanks entirely to Svindal, who also got a silver in the downhill.

Indeed, that first medal eased his mind before yesterday's race. Standing in the start gate, with Miller and Weibrecht holding the day's top two times to that point, Svindal thought to himself, "You already have a silver and it can only get better, so enjoy this and give it all you have. Don't hold anything back."

He finished in 1 minute, 30.34 seconds, 0.28 faster than Miller of Franconia, N.H., who gave away time at the bottom of the course and acknowledged he "ran out of gas a little bit." Weibrecht of Lake Placid, N.Y., never before fared better than 10th in a significant race but wound up only 0.03 of a second slower than Miller.

"If you don't watch ski racing every weekend, you might miss my name," Weibrecht deadpanned. "It definitely feels good to establish myself."

While two-time reigning World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn was pegged to collect a bushel of medals at Whistler, no other U.S. skiers distinguished themselves enough in the leadup to generate much buzz.

So much for that.

Vonn won a gold in downhill, Miller earned a bronze plus his silver to become the first U.S. Alpine skier with four career Olympic medals, Julia Mancuso won two silvers, and the undersized and unheralded Weibrecht finally climbed on a podium. And if that's not enough, Miller and Weibrecht were the first American men since twins Phil and Steve Mahre in 1984 to win medals in the same Alpine event - that after Vonn and Mancuso doubled up in the women's downhill.

"I don't think anyone was expecting this," said Marco Sullivan, who was 23rd yesterday. "It was 'The Lindsey Vonn Show' coming in, and now it's turned into 'The U.S. Ski Team Show' - and it's really cool."

So back to the question Miller was posed: Why?

There's no clear answer.

Could be as simple as early success breeding more success.

"It's definitely inspiring having Julia and Lindsey and Bode all doing really well to start the Olympics," said Weibrecht, who at 5-foot-6 barely comes up to Svindal's shoulders.

Could be the Americans' newfangled polyester-knit body suits - the ones with no real texture or seams to reduce wind drag. Then again, the Canadians were outfitted with the same special duds, and no one from the host country has produced better than Erik Guay's pair of fifth-place finishes.

Or maybe it could be an extension of the long tradition of American skiers peaking at the right time, a history that includes such surprise gold medalists as Bill Johnson in 1984, Tommy Moe in 1994, and Ted Ligety and Mancuso herself in 2006.

"We're at the Olympic Games. This is the big show," U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO Bill Marolt said. "Our kids love to compete in the big show."

That certainly wasn't the case for Miller four years ago, when he headed to Turin as the center of attention. Owner of two silver medals from the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, he was supposed to add to that.

Instead, Miller failed to finish or was disqualified from three of five races. He drew more headlines for his late-night partying than his skiing, and no one could be sure what to expect from the 32-year-old this time around.

He skipped the final four stops of the 2008-09 World Cup season and contemplated retirement, hanging out at the beach in California and spending time with his 1-year-old daughter. The time away from the sport he's loved for decades - he didn't even have any skis or boots, he said - helped him get a fresh feel. It also didn't hurt that he now has fewer demands on his time from sponsors and the media.

Most of all, Miller said, he is skiing well now because he is "inspired" - by teammates, by competitors, by his own drive to turn in a "pure" run.

"I've been a really strong big-event skier since I was little. All the big events, I've always done well in - when I decide that's what I want to do," he said with a chuckle. "The notable exception was that stretch between Torino and now. I've always said that I'm not that interested in results, and I think that showed in that stretch."

Ever his own man, Miller opted to use longer and heavier downhill skis in the super-G to allow himself to be more aggressive in the icy turns on the upper part of the course, even though he knew the exertion spent making it through there would sap his energy by the bottom. His calculation, essentially, was that he would be fast enough early to make up for what happened late. That's exactly what happened.

"He doesn't train all summer, he comes back and wins two medals. Only Bode can do it," said Liechtenstein's Marco Buechel, competing at his sixth Olympics. "If I wouldn't train all summer and come back, I would crash every second gate. His way of skiing is unique. His talent is immense."

A day earlier, Miller got the wind knocked out of him when he landed on his back while doing slalom training runs to prepare for tomorrow's super-combined. He laughed as he talked about that, because, well, Miller insists that he's all about having fun on the slopes.



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