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.