KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Lowering his head, then crouching in a corner, Bode Miller lingered in the finish area after his slower-than-expected Olympic downhill run, contemplating where things might have gone wrong.
Most everyone, Miller included, thought he was the man to beat entering Sunday’s race.
Most everyone, the 36-year-old American included, thought he had a realistic shot at becoming the oldest Alpine gold medalist in Winter Games history.
Didn’t even come close. Failing to produce the sort of near-perfect performance he came up with in practice, Miller finished eighth in the downhill, more than a half-second slower than champion Matthias Mayer of Austria.
Among the eight gold medalists on Day 3 were: snowboarder Jamie Anderson, the American slopestyle queen who triumphed in her sport’s Olympic debut; Irene Wust, who showed why speedskating is Dutch territory; and Russia in team figure skating, likewise an Olympic newcomer, for its first gold in Sochi.
“This can be a tough one to swallow today, having skied so well in the training runs, and then come in and be way out of the medals,” said Miller, who was born in New Hampshire and now is based in California.
“But I think I skied really well, honestly. I was super-aggressive,” he added. “The conditions didn’t favor me today, but I think, all things considered, I skied really well.”
Not nearly well enough. Still, Miller only would concede that he made “a few little mistakes the whole way down, but nothing that really should have cost me much time.”
He had the fastest times on two of the three training days, when the sky was blue and sunlight draped the snow. On Sunday, a cloud cover made it tougher to see, and Miller pointed to that as a key factor.
“I don’t have as much tolerance for not being able to see the snow. I need to know where the snow is,” Miller explained. “The beginning of the turn, middle of the turn, I need to know where the little bumps are, because I’m right on the edge.”
In addition to the lower visibility, he said the snow in the middle of the course was softer when he raced as the 15th starter than when Mayer was the 11th man down the hill.
All week, he was by far the best racer at the top of the course, building up advantages that allowed him to overcome being slower in the lower sections.
When it mattered more, Miller was not nearly as clean at the outset, and by the end, he was not in the tightest of tucks, giving away precious time.
Miller wasn’t even the top American. Travis Ganong finished a surprising fifth, better than he’s ever done in a World Cup race.
“Ski racing is such a fickle sport. It’s a matter of hundredths and tenths of a second after skiing two, three miles down a 3,000-vertical-foot hill,” Ganong said. “There are so many bumps, so many rolls, so many tough little sections. There are so many variables. You can’t have a perfect run.”
Miller definitely did not.
He’s a two-time overall World Cup champion, and he already owns a U.S.-record five Olympic Alpine medals, including three from Vancouver in 2010.
After needing left knee surgery two years ago, Miller sat out all of last season with an eye to being fit for the Olympics. And he was not shy about saying he really wanted to win Sunday.
“This is the premier event,” he said, “and it’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit.”
U.S. men’s head coach Sasha Rearick’s take?
“Bode wanted it too much,” Rearick said.
There are more races to come at the Sochi Games, of course — the downhill was the first of five events for the men — and Miller already was thinking ahead.
He was asked what went through his mind in those quiet moments after he completed the course.
“Going back through the run, seeing if I’d make changes, if I blew it, if I did something stupid. In this case, I didn’t,” he said. “I just had to steel myself for the rest.”
There was a lot of ugliness out on the supersized Olympic slopestyle course — crashes, splashes, face plants, even a cracked helmet.
As she so often does, Anderson made things look beautiful again.
The world’s most consistent rider came through big under a huge amount of pressure — “I was freaking out,” she said — riding clean on the rails and stomping down three high-flying jumps on her second, and make-or-break, trip down the mountain. She scored a 95.25 on that run to make America 2-for-2 in slopestyle’s colorful and treacherous debut on the Olympic stage.
“It’s kind of a big deal,” said the gold medalist, who earlier this winter had conceded she was heading to Russia with some reservations about what the Olympics really stand for.
Enni Rukajarvi of Finland won silver, and Jenny Jones took bronze to give Britain its first Olympic medal on the snow.
A heady piece of history for Jones, the 33-year-old, one-time ski resort housekeeper from Bristol, who was unapologetic in revealing she prepared for the big day by watching “Downton Abbey” back at her place in the athletes village.
Jones calls Anderson a “hippie,” and it’s true, the 23-year-old from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., likes yoga and meditation — and granola every now and then.
“I think it’s fair to say Jamie marches to the beat of her own drummer,” American coach Mike Jankowski said. “She likes to do things her way out here.”
Much as she wanted to relax while getting ready for her final run, she said it was, indeed, a little disconcerting standing at the top of the mountain, watching rider after rider take a fall. Of the 24 runs in finals, no fewer than 17 of them included a hand drag, a fall or worse — and that wasn’t counting Austrian Anna Gasser’s failed climb back up the first embankment after she was given the “go” sign a second too soon.
Isabel Derungs of Switzerland fell off a rail and face-planted into the snow.
Silje Norendal, the Norwegian who handed Anderson one of her few losses two weeks ago at the Winter X Games, fell off the first rail, bobbled on the second, then washed out completely on her second jump.
Worst of all, Sarka Pancochova of the Czech Republic lost it on the first jump of her second run, the back of her head slamming against the snow. Her body skittered down the hill, flipping side to side, with her legs flopping like a rag doll. Somehow, she got up and rode down the hill under her own power. When she got there, she showed off a pencil-wide crack that ran the length of her helmet.
“Well, it seems broken, but that’s what they are for, right?” said Pancochova, who was not seriously injured, according to team officials.
Against that backdrop, and overcast skies, Anderson, who lost her balance and nearly fell on the final jump of her opening run, reached the starting gate for the second.
“I was just visualizing, like, seeing myself already landing and coming down here,” she said. “Just trying to believe.”
She made a mini-Usain Bolt pose, as if getting ready to arch an arrow, pounded on her snow pants, then took off.
On a course thought by some to be too tough for women, where even Anderson fell and hurt her back during training, she was almost flawless.
With Evgeni Plushenko and a captivating Julia Lipnitskaia winning the free skates, Russia took the figure skating team event without needing to worry about the concluding ice dance.
President Vladimir Putin was among those in a crowd relishing this victory as the Russians drew away from the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. wound up with the bronze medal.
Plushenko’s body has been battered by 12 operations and he had to convince his federation he merited a spot in Sochi.
“All the fans are cheering so hard that you literally cannot do badly because they do everything with you,” Plushenko said. “You get goose bumps.”
Another royal visit, more Dutch gold. Wust gave the Netherlands its second victory by winning the 3,000. Skating before her king and queen, Wust won in four minutes, 0.34 seconds. Defending champ Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic took the silver while Olga Graf won bronze for Russia’s first medal of the games. Claudia Pechstein, 41 and a six-time Olympian, was fourth. Wust, her nails red, white and blue like the Dutch flag, held up three fingers, signifying her third Olympic gold medal.