WHISTLER, British Columbia — Depending on how you look at things, American Bode Miller missed his first Olympic gold medal by either 0.09 seconds or 20 minutes in Monday’s Alpine downhill.
Skiing in flat light that hampered his visibility on the middle part of the course, the New Hampshire speed merchant laid down a blistering run other skiers thought golden.
“I thought he’d won,” U.S. teammate Andrew Weibrecht said.
But about 20 minutes later the sun peaked out from behind the clouds improving visibility well enough for two skiers to squeak past leaving Miller with a bronze in the closest downhill race in Olympic history. Switzerland’s Didier Defago took gold in a time of 1:54.31 and silver went to Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal.
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Miller was 0.09 seconds behind Defago.
“That’s the way skiing is sometimes you get a little bad luck and it makes a difference,” Miller said of the flat light during his run.
Miller’s bronze sets a standard for American skiers. While gold still eludes him, he’s won more Olympic medals than any U.S. skier — three, including his two in 2002 at Salt Lake City.
“It’s such a relief to get a medal,” Miller said. “The fact that those other guys beat me to the hundredth of a second doesn’t bother me.”
Miller said he was nervous before his run, “but excited nervous, not anxiety nervous. It felt great.”
His teammates said he seemed especially focused before the race, something he’s lacked at time in his career. The focus may have helped him speed through the middle of the course even though visibility was not ideal.
“It was dark,” said Weibrecht, who skied fewer than 10 minutes before Miller.
Miller says he lost the race in the middle section and the mistakes he made were because of the flat light.
“That’s just a critical part of the course,” Miller said. “I was pushing really hard the whole way, but I had a couple of bobbles. Just not being able to see, you hit bumps and it kind of bounces you around a little bit.”
Defago and Svindal skied eight and 10 spots respectively after Miller and had better visibility. Defago gained 0.53 seconds on Miller during the middle section and Svindal gained 0.73 seconds.
“It was a great day,” Miller said. “... A great race overall. It felt like an Olympics to me. ... That was the feeling I’ve been searching for.”
Other than the light, the skiers said the course was in good shape considering the race had been delayed two days because of rain.
Defago, who has shown glimpses of Alpine genius in his career, was probably most pleased with the course. The 32-year-old became the oldest man ever to win the event at the Olympics.
“This is what I was missing,” Defago said through a translator. “... I wanted to bring back a little more weight in my luggage than what I came with.”
American’s Steven Nyman and Weibrecht finished 20th and 21st respectably, also going early before conditions improved. Marco Sullivan was disqualified for missing a gate.
Sullivan said Weibrecht aggressive run is a sign that the 23-year-old is the team’s future.
“He’s going to be a star,” Sullivan said. “He is a great skier. ... He is one of the best turners on the World Cup. There are some guys who just have it.”
The men race again Tuesday in the super combined (a downhill run followed by a slalom) run. Miller won the last World Cup super combined before the Olympics and is a favorite.
But Svindal, the reigning world champ, will also be a threat.
“It’s a good start to the Games,” Svindal said of his Monday’s silver medal. “I think I can be fast tomorrow too.”