USA's success, failure came from risk
WHISTLER, British Columbia -- The weather for the men's slalom on the final day of Alpine skiing was foggy, drizzly and miserable, the sort of conditions Bud Selig would likely deem optimal for the World Series. "Let's play two!" But as Americans and skiers of all nationalities missed gates and slid into the slop Saturday, only those with a very short memory could not look through the fog and see the American Alpine success at these Olympics.
The U.S. won eight medals here, more than any previous Olympics and more than the Americans won in the previous three Olympics combined. It was even more than the Austrians and Swiss combined, which cannot be going down well in Salzburg and Zurich (particularly in Salzburg, given that the Austrian men did not win a single medal). To want more after the sensational first week was only natural, but also greedy. (Then again, we are Americans.)
While the last week was disappointing -- Bode Miller and Ted Ligety did not finish the first run of the slalom, extending a four-event slump in which the team finished no higher than eighth and had five DNFs -- the reason U.S. skiers spent the second week crashing and missing gates was the same reason they stepped on the podium the first week: They took risks. In skiing, as in life, sometimes the risks pay off and sometimes they don't.
Sometimes you finish with a medal around your neck. Sometimes you finish with the protective netting around your body.
"It looks great when you're popping medals left and right like we were in the beginning and you think we're just that good, that we're just kicking ass," Bode Miller said after ending his fourth Olympics by missing a gate just seconds into the morning slalom run. "But the fact is, we're taking enormous risks, everyone, even Lindsey [Vonn]. She came in here as a monster favorite. But you can't put it down and think you're going to win medals here. It doesn't work that way. It doesn't get easier as you win more medals. You still bring the same huge risks, the same intensity to every race.
"I know the risks we're taking -- not many people do. My coaches even don't really understand what risks I'm taking out there."
Miller won three medals, including that elusive first Olympic gold, to deservedly cement himself as the best skier in U.S. history rather than the most infamous skier interviewed on "60 Minutes."
"I used to race like that, with that kind of heart and intensity all the time when I was younger. To have that, come back and be inspired at these Games, I appreciate that more than I did then," Miller said. "How unique to find that kind of energy, to achieve something above and beyond what you could do on your own because you were part of something else. That was really cool. That was exactly what I needed."
Skiing with a bruised shin and later a broken finger, Vonn won fewer medals than hoped, but she did win the marquee event in her sport -- the downhill -- plus a bronze in the super-G. She also scored an even more valuable prize -- two free tickets to Sunday's United States-Canada gold-medal men's hockey game. And if she ever finds herself pressed for funds, she could probably get an endorsement deal for that Austrian cheese she used on her shin.
Julia Mancuso won two silvers. Andrew Weibrecht took a bronze. About the only disappointment was Ligety, who won the combined at the 2006 Torino Games, but did not win any medals here.
"It's kind of a kick in the nuts leaving here without a medal," Ligety said after straddling a gate in the morning run. "I would have liked to have gotten one, especially in the giant slalom, that was my main focus, but it didn't go that way and that's ski racing. I think there was definitely some more pressure, especially with Andrew Weibrecht getting a medal and me being one of the guys who was supposed to get a medal, and not getting a medal there is more pressure in that respect."
Even so, Ligety was able to appreciate his team's success.
"We had a really good atmosphere on the team. The whole setup we had was pretty primed for us doing well," he said. "I think living in the condos like we did, having our own cooks made life a lot easier than it would have been in the village. We were able to ski in and out; the lifestyle and all the peripheral stuff around the skiing was really easy to deal with, which makes it easier when you get on the hill. That was a big advantage."
The U.S. team raised the bar so high at these Olympics, it will be difficult to match in Sochi, but we'll see if they can. Meanwhile, somewhere in Austria, two fans are no doubt staring into their beer steins and muttering, "You know what we need to do for 2014? We must be like the Americans."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.
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