The sky over Beaver Creek's Birds of Prey course was bluebird-bright, the grandstand was stuffed with 3,500 people screaming their lungs out, and Bode Miller–Olympic medalist, self-taught skiing dynamo and great divider of opinions–was in the starting gate.
Miller's first World Cup race since March, it could have been the comeback of a career of comebacks. He had hurt his back in a training run crash; skiing proved so painful he scrapped the rest of the 2014 season. Back surgery in November gruesomely revealed the problem: a herniated disk that created disgusting blue detritus that, as Bode captioned his Instagram, "looked like Nerds."
Some of us questioned whether he'd come back at all. Keep in mind that this is a sport where most of the top guys are in their 20s, early 30s max. Miller is 37. And all of the racers are in absolute top physical shape. They have to be. In a speed discipline like downhill or super-G, a racer can expect to pull about 3.5Gs around a turn (more than an astronaut during a launch), all while going 60 to 70, 80, even 100 mph down a veritable ice rink.
So it wasn't that surprising that Miller skipped out on all of this season's previous races. It was very surprising that Miller was there today at all, taking on the men's Super-G in the 2015 Vail-Beaver Creek World Championships along with the rest of the world's top racers—almost all of them younger, healthier, and without nearly a year of rust.
More impressive still, his start was immaculate. Even 11 months after his last race, Miller hardly seemed daunted. Nor did he when he charged out onto the hill from the starting gate, onto the first steep that marked the beginning of one of the toughest race hills in the world. Miller was, as racers like to say, attacking the course. Holding nothing back. Showing absolutely no fear.
It's worth noting here that super-G may be the toughest of all the disciplines. Yes, slalom, with its super-fast turns, requires the quickest thinking and fastest feet. Downhill, with its 90mph speeds and soaring jumps, is the most mentally intimidating.
But super-G combines ridiculous speeds with technical thinking. You might be going 70 mph – that's 100 feet per second–and yet you have to make more turns than a downhill, all requiring throwing your body the opposite direction from where inertia wants to take you.
There are some rolls in the course designed to launch you into the air, and many are blind, meaning if you don't point your skis in the right direction coming into that crest (something skiers call "setting up" a turn), you'll launch off the wrong way, missing the next gate or worse.
The kicker: super-G racers get no training runs. They can inspect the course the morning it's set up–but they can't run it. When they hit those rolls without being able to see the landing, they're hitting them for the first time.
This was what Miller was signing up for today. This was also where he has, in the past, excelled.
And, so far, he was excelling. His line was great: he was setting up his turns high, cutting just close enough to the gates to waste not an inch or moment. The angles of his body to his edges to the snow were pure power, eking energy and speed out of every turn.
At the second split, 55 seconds into the run, he was more than half a second ahead of the then-leader–in racing, a huge lead. The crowd was going nuts. Even though he was only the ninth racer down, that split made him a serious contender. One likely to wind up on the podium. Maybe even to win gold, which would have made him the oldest gold medalist at the World Champs, not to mention a comeback king for the history books.
But that's not what happened. About two-thirds of the way down the run, Miller came off the Golden Eagle jump and landed strong, launching into the Abyss—a part of the course with a 697-foot vertical drop over 2,224 feet that, while not the gnarliest section, required fast, technical thinking, and advance planning. A couple of turns down, it caught him up, literally: Miller aimed his skis ever so slightly too close to the gate; as he came around the turn, he clipped the gate with his left arm.
At 60mph, that was all it took. He spun out like a top and slid backwards, long skis akimbo, before spiraling head-over-heels through the air, helmet skimming the snow as his legs flipped over him, a ragdoll against that perfect sky. An old pro at crashing, he relaxed into the tumble. Finally landing, he slid several gates down the Abyss–a section of the course where the gradient reaches 26.7 degrees–on his back. That same back that's been giving him so many problems.
That Miller didn't fight his crash may have saved him, if indeed he has been saved: he stood up almost immediately, though bowed slightly by pain. And then he put his skis on and skied, slowly, to the bottom.
Only after the finish line did the camera zoom in on the most visible result of his rash, a deep, bloody gash on his right leg, just above the boot line, having undoubtedly been sliced by the razor-sharp edge of his ski. Miller's back? TBD.
The crash may have sent Miller into the Abyss in more ways than one. A return from this in time for Saturday's downhill would take "comeback" to a whole new level.
But that first two-thirds of Miller's run was an incredible accomplishment on its own. At 37, he's still got it. And, more than 15 years into his World Cup career, he's still willing to push his own limits when there's gold on the line.
Freelance journalist Amanda Ruggeri, a former ski racer, writes for publications including the BBC, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. After nearly five years of living (and skiing) in Italy, she now lives in Brooklyn, where she has learned that when it snows, her new neighbors do not share her enthusiasm.