SOCHI, Russia — This time, there was no question Bode Miller cared about his Olympic performance.
Eight years after going 0-for-5 at the Turin Olympics and bragging about how much fun he had at the local bars, a wiser and more humble Miller wept at the finish line Sunday after sharing a bronze medal in the men’s Super G behind his U.S. teammate, surprise silver medalist Andrew Weibrecht.
At 36, Miller became the oldest alpine medalist in Olympic history.
His six medals also put him at No. 2 all-time among male racers behind only Kjetil Andre Aamodt. And, Miller is now tied with speedskating legend Bonnie Blair for second-most medals won by a U.S. Winter Olympian. Short tracker Apolo Anton Ohno has eight.
But it wasn’t the milestones that had Miller choked up. The weight of the past year finally got to him, particularly his battle back from left knee surgery and the premature death of his 29-year-old snowboarding younger brother, Chelone “Chilly’’, in April 2013 of an apparent seizure.
“I’ve been to a lot of major championships and Olympics and this one was a little different, coming off an injury that could have been the end of my career and I was ready for that,’’ Miller said. “I would have walked away happy and moved on. But my knee came back. When you go through that, you have time to reflect and look forward and I wanted to come in here and race in a way I’d be proud of. It’s been hard the first few races (eighth in downhill, sixth in super combined).
“Compound that with losing my brother; that was really hard and just attached emotion to it because he wanted to come to these Games. I felt like that was all connected and raw and emotional for me, and in the finish it all just kind of came out.’’
Weibrecht, who had four surgeries in the past four years and wasn’t sure he’d even make the Sochi team, was also emotional upon realizing he had won the silver. He is making a habit of blindsiding his Olympic competition. Four years ago, the 28-year-old Lake Placid. N.Y., native came out of nowhere to win the Super G bronze medal behind silver-medalist Miller at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
This one was an even bigger shock.
Weibrecht had only one Top 10 finish in 95 World Cup races the past four years, and never won a medal. He worried he’d lose funding from the U.S. Ski Federation. Then, when he found out he’d be starting No. 29 on Sunday, he figured the snow would have deteriorated by then and he was “bummed.’’
But once again, he saved his best for the Olympics. His parents will have another medal to hang at their Lake Placid hotel.
Weibrecht, who is nicknamed “War Horse,’’ charged down the mountain, ignoring his surgically-repaired shoulder and ankles, and finished three-tenths of a second behind gold medalist Kjetil Jansrud of Norway and two-tenths ahead of Miller and Jan Hudec, whose bronze is Canada’s first alpine medal in 20 years.
“I heard people screaming and it was really loud and I looked at scoreboard and saw second next to my name and I was like ‘Oh man!’ I had to do a double-take.
“This is probably the most emotional day of ski racing that I’ve had. It’s been a pretty difficult four years and it’s one of those things where you can only be beat down so many times before you start to really look at what you’re doing. I didn’t know how many beat-downs I could take.”
He said the average sports fan doesn’t appreciate how difficult it is to win ski races and how much agony is involved, even for the best in the sport.
“It’s not tennis or something like that,’’ he said. “The best racers win two races in a year. Not like Roger Federer — when he was Roger Federer — who won 120 matches and lost one match. That’s the essence of ski racing. You’ve got to really learn how to manage disappointment pretty well a lot of the time. But every once in a while, something really positive happens and it keeps you going.’’
It was a big day for the U.S. ski team, which was facing criticism after just one bronze medal in the first five alpine events (Julia Mancuso in Super Combined). Weibrecht and Miller may energize the team heading in to the technical events, where Ted Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin are gold-medal favorites.
Miller said he is unsure whether he will continue racing, but feels he is skiing as well as ever, and as long as he can stay healthy, he may stick around until the next World Championship in Vail. He admitted he is starting to feel his age, and think about his legacy. He joked that when he gets home, he and his wife plan to take a photo of him in a long white beard and carrying a cane along with all his medals.
“People asked me back when I was 22, ‘What’s your biggest goal?’ My biggest goal is not to kill myself, not to hurt myself,’’ Miller said. “I watched friend after friend go by the wayside…knee braces, back injections, ACLs. Once that happens, it compounds. In football, if you don’t dive into guys, if you don’t head butt you’re going to stay healthier. In skiing, if you back off, if you ski more tentative, you’re almost more likely to get hurt. If you ski like you’re invincible, you stay invincible.
“Maybe I just have a bad short-term memory, but I keep convincing myself I’m invincible even though I’m ancient.’’