WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) -- Bode Miller finally won his elusive gold medal, using a blistering slalom run Sunday to complete one of the most unlikely Olympic comebacks ever.
Four years after bombing out amid lofty expectations at the Turin Games and a year after practically walking away from the sport, Miller won the super-combined for his third medal in as many events at Vancouver.
Seventh after the morning downhill run, Miller skied the third-fastest afternoon slalom leg for a two-run time of 2 minutes, 44.92 seconds -- a comfortable 0.33 ahead of Ivica Kostelic of Croatia, who matched his silver medal at Turin. Silvan Zurbriggen of Switzerland claimed bronze, 0.40 back.
For a guy who has insisted that medals aren't important, this one clearly was special.
"The way I executed, the way I skied, is something I'll be proud of the rest of my life," Miller said.
"I skied with 100 percent heart -- I didn't hold anything back. ... It's just awesome. There's nothing else to say."
Having skipped summer training while he debated retiring, Miller nearly didn't have enough energy to hold on as he came over the final pitch of the slalom course.
"My legs started feeling really wobbly," he said. "I didn't even feel like I was looking at the gate anymore."
Miller has also won a silver and a bronze at the Vancouver Games -- a sharp contrast from his no-medal performance in Turin.
Miller said he was running on "fumes" following his first two races, the downhill and the super-G.
"I felt awesome about it," he said. "But still, it's incredibly emotionally exhausting to do it like that.
"I've got one leg that's injured and another leg that's on my boat already," he added, looking forward to his postseason vacation.
Miller and Kostelic were 1-2 when downhill leader Aksel Lund Svindal came down, and when the big Norwegian failed to complete his slalom leg, Miller had the gold medal that had eluded him since he burst onto the scene at Salt Lake City in 2002.
"I figured they both had really good runs, so I couldn't hold back," Svindal said. "I had to attack it if I had any chance to get that gold."
Miller was faster than Svindal on the upper section of the downhill run, but acknowledged a series of mistakes on the lower part. Still, having begun his career as a slalom specialist, he wasn't counting himself out and charged all the way down in the second leg.
Miller increased his lead at both checkpoints in the slalom. He skied fluidly on the top, then started to get bounced up in the air as he tried to maintain his speed on the quicker gates in the lower section, just barely making one gate after another.
He dropped some speed before the finish but maintaining enough to beat Kostelic.
Miller called the second half of his slalom run "a joke"
"I don't know how I got those last 15 gates through the finish," he said. "It was literally just willpower, because my legs were completely shot."
The last of Miller's five World Cup slalom wins came more than five years ago, and he has been searching since then to rediscover his form in the discipline.
This run should satisfy him.
Miller let out a big smile upon crossing the finish line and stuck out his tongue while the crowd roared its approval.
"Slalom in my mind is the toughest event," Miller said. "When you ski slalom well, it's the best event there is. When you ski it poorly, it's the worst event there is."
What's more, Miller managed to survive a slalom course set by Kostelic's father and coach, Ante, who is known for his tricky sets.
"I think slalom skiers for sure wouldn't have a great chance if the slalom course was simple," Ivica Kostelic said. "The setting was quite demanding, but not as demanding as it could be. But demanding enough so that the slalom skiers could make up time."
Along with his father, Kostelic shared the moment with older sister Janica, who won the combined at the past two Olympics, then retired.
"We've been together all of our lives," Ivica Kostelic said. "I think it's fair that we share this moment together as well. Dad's course certainly helped."
When Ligety won four years ago, the combined used the traditional format of one downhill run and two slalom legs. With only one slalom run now, the new format doesn't favor Ligety as much, and he had too much ground to make up after placing 15th in the downhill.
Still, Ligety was pleased to have Miller replace him as Olympic champion -- adding to his four world championship golds in four different disciplines.
"He's been really motivated," Ligety said. "It's cool to really see him win an Olympic gold. That's what's been missing from his resume."
In another stellar day for the U.S. team, Will Brandenburg posted the second-fastest slalom run and finished 10th overall in his Olympic debut. The Spokane, Washington, resident did not finish the only four World Cup races he entered -- and crashed in downhill training Saturday.
Miller won two silvers at Salt Lake City and opened these games by taking bronze in the downhill and silver in the super-G. With five medals for his career, he is tied with Italy's Alberto Tomba and Norway's Lasse Kjus for second on the all-time Alpine list for men, trailing only the eight by Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway.
The three medals in Vancouver match the record for most by a man in Alpine skiing at a single Olympics. Aamodt won two silvers and a bronze at the 1994 Lillehammer Games, while Jean-Claude Killy swept all three events then held at the 1968 Grenoble Games and Toni Sailer did the same at Cortina d'Ampezzo in 1956.
Miller's victory boosted the U.S. medal tally in Alpine skiing at the Vancouver Games to a record eight -- already three more than the five from Sarajevo in 1984 -- with four races remaining.
Winning the super-combined was appropriate for Miller, who has always been proud of his overall skiing ability. By adding the times from one downhill run and one slalom leg, the super-combined is a true test of an overall skier.
It was Olympic redemption for the 32-year-old from Franconia, N.H.
After winning the World Cup overall title in 2004-05, he was touted as the star of the 2006 Turin Games. Instead, he didn't win a medal of any kind. He failed to finish or was disqualified from three of five races and drew more headlines for partying than skiing.
Miller won a second World Cup overall in 2007-08 while racing independently from the U.S. Ski Team, but skipped the final four stops of last season and contemplated retirement, hanging out at the beach in California and spending time with his 1-year-old daughter. Refreshed and recommitted, he rejoined the U.S. team in September and hastily prepared for the World Cup season.
Over the years, Miller traditionally started the World Cup season strongly in October and wore himself down by February. By targeting his entire season around the Olympics, he entered in better form -- and with a better mindset -- than he did in Turin.
"Coming into the season out of shape was kind of a bonus for him," Ligety said. "I think it helped him peak."
Miller's only victory this season or last came in a super-combined in Wengen, Switzerland, last month.
"The super-combined is tailor-made for Bode," Ligety said. "He's one of the best downhill skiers in the world and he shows moments of brilliance in slalom. He did that today."
Miller gave up a sure medal in the super-combined at last season's worlds when he went out in the slalom. Still, U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick didn't discuss any strategy with Miller before this race.
"Now he just trusts himself to go as hard as he can," Rearick said. "We're not telling him, 'You need to be smart here, ski this tactically. Just go out there and ski like you can. Trust yourself and ski, ski, ski."'
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