Bode Miller looks on after his run during the Alpine Skiing Men's Downhill at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center on February 9, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Bode Miller doesn’t care as much about winning medals as he does about skiing well. Usually, one leads to the other. But not today.
On a cloudy day on the two-mile-plus-long men’s downhill course at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, Miller was happy with his skiing but a little disappointed that it didn’t yield gold. Matthias Mayer, a 23-year-old from Austria took the gold instead. Miller ended up eighth.
“This can be a tough one to swallow today having skied so well in the training runs, and then come in and be way out of the medals,” Miller said. “I think I skied really well, honestly. I was aggressive, but the conditions didn’t favor me today.”
Already the U.S. skier with the most Olympic medals (five: one gold, three silvers, one bronze), 35-year-old Miller (one of the oldest skiers in the field) could have cemented his legacy with a gold medal in alpine skiing’s premier event. And after the training runs last week, he was the heavy favorite to win it.
But his opponents knew that might be to their advantage. “For Bode to win this race was not easy,” said Italy’s Peter Fill, who finished one place ahead of Miller in seventh. “Matthias Mayer was not a favorite.”
Miller’s biggest opponent turned out to be the weather. While the training runs were held on colder, blue-sky days last week, high clouds moved in for the race, as well as warmer temperatures. As the race wore on, the higher humidity and warmer temps softened the ice in the middle part of the course and slowed it down for later competitors. Miller started 15th.
Even Mayer conceded that the top 10 racers had an advantage because temperatures rose as morning turned to afternoon.
“The last flat, there was a little bit of wet snow, soft snow,” said the Austrian, who is 13 years Miller’s junior. “I think [earlier racers] gained a few hundredths advantage there.”
American Travis Ganong, who had the race of his life and finished fifth, thought Miller made a mistake coming into the middle part of the course, pinching a turn and losing speed. But Miller disagreed.
“I didn’t really make any mistakes, and I lost a ton of time,” he said. “It’s hard to say where the time went. It’s tough to just be missing it.”
What affected Miller the most was the visibility. On a cloudy day, the light was flat.
“I ski a bit more on the edge than most guys, so I don’t have as much tolerance for not being able to see the snow,” he explained. “I need to know where the snow is in the beginning of the turn, middle of the turn; I need to know where the little bumps are because I’m right on the edge.”
Unable to fully see the course’s details, Miller was forced to back off.
“When the visibility goes a little south like it did, it’s really hard to just know that you’re in an Olympic race, where medals are on the line and you really want to win, to know that you’re going to dial it back to 80 percent. It just doesn’t fit into the plan very well.”
Head U.S. coach Sasha Rearick was not disappointed with the results. He was excited for Ganong “to come out on race day and charge.” After sitting in third through 13 racers, Ganong was fired up, too.
“I knew I had that kind of skiing in me but to actually do it on race day at the Olympics is pretty special,” he said.
Steven Nyman and Marco Sullivan were both frustrated with their runs, finishing 27th and 30th, respectively.
Rearick was excited for Miller to get this race — and big race nerves — out of the way.
“Now he’s going to take his aggression to the next courses, that I’m confident on,” the coach added.
Miller, who brings emotion and intensity to his racing, accepted his fate with aplomb.
“I would have loved to win obviously,” he said. “This is the premier event, and it’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit. But when it’s out of your control, that kind of takes the disappointment away more or less. I don’t think I would change much. I think I skied well enough to win. But it just doesn’t happen sometimes.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.