Krasnaya Polyana, Russia • Sundance’s Steven Nyman stepped in front of a swarm of reporters and took a deep breath while surveying the scene, contemplating just exactly what he wanted to say.
Finally, he blew it out.
“That sucked,” he said.
Nyman threw in a smile and a little laugh at the end, but the message was no less serious, and spot-on for most of his American teammates competing in the men’s downhill at the Sochi Olympics on Sunday.
None of them finished on the podium in one of the premiere events of the Games — Austria’s Matthias Mayer won, ahead of Italy’s Christof Innerhofer and Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud — and pre-race favorite Bode Miller wound up a disappointing eighth after dominating the training sessions.
“This can be a tough one to swallow,” Miller said.
The five-time Olympic medalist had emerged surprisingly as a favorite again, at age 36 and after missing all of last season following knee surgery. Even Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, the reigning world and World Cup downhill champion, had called him the man to beat, after Miller was fastest down the treacherous course — longest in Olympic history at 2.2 miles — twice in three training runs.
“He’s been the best skier on the mountain,” Svindal said.
Not when it counted.
Skiing just four racers after Mayer raced flawlessly down the second half of the course to clock 2 minutes, 6.23 seconds and assume the lead, Miller charged out of the gate to the roaring cheers of the crowd. He led by as much as 0.31 seconds through the first two time checks.
But then it all went wrong.
Miller steadily lost time as he careened toward the bottom.
He finished 0.52 seconds back and allowed Mayer to claim his nation’s first downhill gold since the 2002 Salt Lake Games — despite never having won a World Cup race or even reached the podium in a downhill, in his three years on tour.
It was the second straight Olympics to feature a surprise downhill winner, following Switzerland’s Didier Defago, who won at the 2010 Vancouver Games and relegated Svindal to silver.
Svindal finished fourth this time.
“This is unbelieveable,” said Mayer, whose father won silver in the super-G at the 1988 Calgary Games. “I thought maybe in a few years I could dream of this sort of achievement. … I woke up this morning and I knew that I could win this race. I was smiling the whole day, all throughout the inspection. It was my day today.”
For Miller, though, not so much.
By the end, the skier who usually shakes off losses like they mean nothing looked every bit a defeated man.
Staring blankly, he hung his head and slumped over his skis for long stretches, clearly disappointed not to be able to improve on the bronze medal he won four years ago.
“The conditions didn’t favor me today,” Miller said. “But I think all things considered, I skied really well. I was happy with the tactics I had. I went out and skied really hard, took a lot of risks, and I didn’t back off at all.
“I just think the middle of this course slowed down and made it really tough,” he added. “I would have loved to win, obviously. … But when it’s out of your control, it kind of takes the disappointment away, more or less. I don’t think I would change much, the way I skied. I think I skied well enough to win, but it just doesn’t happen sometimes.”
It certainly didn’t happen for the Utahns in the race.
Nyman finished 27th and flogged himself for failing to “let it go,” while Park City resident Marco Sullivan was 30th in a field of 50 starters.
“I just made too many mistakes,” Nyman said, “especially coming into some flat areas. It was just horrendous. … My willingness to let it go wasn’t really there. I skied pretty, but not fast.”
The only real bright spot for the Americans was a surprising fifth-place finish by first-time Olympian Travis Ganong, a one-time Westminster College student who never has reached the top five in a World Cup race but gave the U.S. two top-10 finishers in an Olympic downhill for the first time.
“I just let myself relax and just let my skiing take over,” he said. “I had a lot of fun and it worked out.”
Though it was a disappointing start for the U.S. Ski Team, the Americans still have Miller racing probably four more times in the next two weeks, alongside Park City’s triple world champion Ted Ligety.
And he hasn’t even arrived yet.