SOCHI, Russia — As Bode Miller grows more vulnerable he becomes more lovable.
He was once so invincible, and so irritating. He declined to be anyone but himself. He refused to be defined by Olympic medals. He was fascinating and maddening. With six medals, he stands near the top of America’s finest Olympians, but he’s also, strangely enough, an underachiever.
Yes, he delivered so much, but he might have delivered so much more. He is supremely talented. This is his gift, and his burden.
But on Sunday, as a tearful Miller embraced his wife, Morgan, it was easy to forgive Miller for his troubles in Turin in 2006 and his endless string of excuses/explanations.
He had survived the death of his brother, Chelone. He had raced down the course on a surgically repaired left knee.
Miller celebrated a bronze medal in the super G on Sunday. He celebrated despite knowing he had performed below his standards. He celebrated because he became the oldest medalist in Alpine competition. Miller is 36 years, 127 days old. The next oldest was Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who had a medal hanging around his neck when he was 34 years, 170 days old.
Bode and Morgan talked a few minutes later about a photo they soon plan to stage.
“I’ll have a big, white beard and bunch of medals,” Miller said. “And I’ll have a cane.”
A few hours later, the grand old man of ski racing sat at a podium, talking in front of a couple dozen reporters. The once brash, always-ready-to-party Miller looked weary. He said he was just happy to be there.
He appeared to be serious.
Before every run, Miller clings to one central goal. He’s seen so much agony, so many injuries.
“My biggest goal is not kill myself, to not hurt myself,” he said. “I’ve seen friend after friend, competitor after competitor go by the wayside.”
The wayside. Miller wondered if he had arrived there after his battered left knee forced him to miss the entire 2013 season. It was tempting, he said, to quit. He knew how much work was ahead if he wanted to compete with, borrowing his words, “the young guys.”
And he knew he already had accomplished so much. He had his five medals. He had a strong legacy.
He marched forward anyway.
On Feb. 9, Miller was favored to win gold in the downhill, largely because of his blazing practice runs. But he faltered, as he has often faltered at the Olympics, and later blamed his lackluster performance on his inability to clearly see the course. Miller performs best in bright sunlight, which lends itself to his all-out approach.
In the dim light Feb. 9, he struggled to see. He finished eighth.
During the next few days, Miller struggled with regret. He’s often struggled with regret during his career. He’s forever searching — in vain, usually — for the perfect ride down the slope.
“Over the years, I’ve had to be able to accept the regret,” he said.
“Emotionally, it’s brutal.”
So are his critics. Miller acts as if he fails to care about those who doubt him, but this is an act. He called critical words “salt in an open wound” on Sunday.
What might have been Miller’s final medal performance was not magnificent.
He struggled on a choppy course. He called his ride “less than I’m capable of, for sure.”
Still, he celebrated. He embraced his wife as tears flowed. He thought of his brother, dead from a seizure at just 29 years old.
He thought of his legacy, of all the victories and all the disappointments.
On this Russian afternoon, Bode Miller was vulnerable.
And, finally, lovable.