Published February 28, 2010
WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) — Four years ago, Bode Miller's washout of a Winter Olympics symbolized where the United States stood in the Alpine skiing hierarchy.
Pegged as the big thing heading into the Turin Games, Miller finished only two of five races, faring no better than fifth place. Ridiculed for its "Best in the World" slogan, the U.S. team left Italy with a grand total of two Alpine medals.
This time, the Americans truly were the best.
Their eight medals represent the highest total for U.S. skiers at any Olympics, and twice as many as any other country collected over the past two weeks. Who led the way in Whistler? Miller, of all people. Not only did the guy win three medals — gold in the super-combined, silver in the super-G, bronze in the downhill — but he also, by all accounts, pushed and prodded teammates to follow his go-for-broke style.
"We weren't scared," the 32-year-old from Franconia, N.H., said proudly. "We didn't back down when the moments were there. In the seconds where you want to lift off the gas to be a little safer, everybody just stomped back down on it."
One measure of how good the U.S. was: This time around, it's Lindsey Vonn who gets saddled with the label of being the star who didn't live up to the hype — and her "failure" consisted of "only" winning one gold and one bronze. That would have counted as a major success in 2006.
But the two-time World Cup overall champion didn't come close to the outsized expectations heaped upon her leading up to these Olympics, all those NBC commercials, all that talk of winning four or five medals and of being Vancouver's answer to Beijing's Michael Phelps. Then again, that talk came before Vonn arrived in Canada with a badly bruised right shin, worrying she might not be able to ski at all.
Aided by various remedies — from taking common painkilling pills to wrapping her leg with an Austrian curd cheese that supposedly reduces swelling — and extra time to heal thanks to the too-warm, too-wet weather that delayed the start of competition, she won her signature event, the downhill, and paired with Julia Mancuso of Squaw Valley, Calif., to give the U.S. its first 1-2 finish in any Olympic Alpine event since 1984.
Vonn, who lives and trains in Vail, Colo., added a bronze in the super-G, but she also skied out in three of her five races, including a spill in the giant slalom that broke her right pinkie and battered her back.
"I have that gold medal," she reminded the world before departing, "and despite everyone else's expectations, my goals were simply to win one medal. And that's what I did."
The only woman who won two Alpine golds is Germany's Maria Riesch, who happens to be Vonn's best friend. There were other impressive performances: Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal matched Miller with three medals, one of each color; Sweden's Anja Paerson recovered from a scary fall in the downhill to win a bronze in the super-combined the next day for her record-tying sixth career Alpine medal; Mancuso, Austria's Elisabeth Goergl, Slovenia's Tina Maze and Croatia's Ivica Kostelic each won two medals.
Aside from her two silvers, Mancuso stirred up some buzz on the hill by complaining that Vonn overshadowed her American teammates. The other U.S. medal was the most surprising of all — a bronze in the super-G for the undersized, unheralded Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid, N.Y., who only once before placed as high as 10th in an international race of any significance.
The only U.S. skier considered a real medal contender who did not win one was 2006 combined champion Ted Ligety of Park City, Utah.
He's only 25, like Vonn and Mancuso, so all three probably will still be on the scene at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, as will Weibrecht and younger skiers who made their debuts at Vancouver, such as Will Brandenburg, 10th in the super-combined.
Whether Miller will be around is anyone's guess, although he'll be 36 by then. He sure seemed rejuvenated this time, talking about "energy" and "excitement" and "passion" and being "inspired" by teammates. Unlike at the Turin Olympics, when he stayed on his own in an RV, tuned out the races and partied hard, Miller lived and trained with the rest of the team.
"He's an unbelievable athlete, he's an unbelievable skier. He's got tremendous experience. Everything's possible," U.S. men's coach Sasha Rearick said. "But I didn't venture into this thing with Bode to just win medals. I ventured into this because Bode had the opportunity to come back to the team and be a positive team member."
The medals did come, though.
The old U.S. team record for Alpine medals at one Olympics was the five in 1984. And consider this: Americans brought home a total of five Alpine medals from the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Winter Games combined.
"I don't think anyone was expecting this," said Marco Sullivan of Squaw Valley. "It was 'The Lindsey Vonn Show' coming in, and now it's turned into 'The U.S. Ski Team Show.'"
Here's the other thing no one was expecting: Austria's problems.
The country with nearly twice as many Olympic Alpine medals as any other, the country that ruled skiing at the Turin Games with 14 medals, picked up only four — and zero by their men for the first time at an Olympics they entered.
Ligety rubbed it in, poking fun at himself and the Austrians by writing on Twitter: "i may not have had the best olympics, but at (least) i won as many medals as the austrian men's alpine team."