WHISTLER, British Columbia — The last time most Americans saw Bode Miller, he missed a slalom gate, skied off the hill and drank a toast to the end of his miserable Olympics.
Miller was the big loser of the 2006 Winter Games. He was vilified for failing to win a medal in five events, dancing in Sestriere clubs and having the audacity to say he didn't care.
He was Bode being Bode, erratically brilliant, consistently independent.
So is the villain a hero now, after a daring run Monday on the Whistler downhill earned him a bronze medal?
Do we love him and forgive him now that he's taken a place on the podium for the U.S. in the glamour event?
Does he get the recognition he deserves as the greatest American skier in history?
Does one minute, 54.40 seconds transform everything for the most misunderstood American skier in history?
The reaction was certainly different from what it was four years ago. As Miller zoomed down the Dave Murray course at 70 mph in his stars and stripes skinsuit, the crowd cheered and gasped as he slashed into the turns at an acute angle, sailed off the jumps and folded into his aerodynamic tuck.
The mood was joyous. After 48 hours of weather delays, alpine skiing finally commenced. After days of seeing the mountains cloaked in spooky fog, the sun peeked through.
Miller crossed the finish line and raised fists to helmet. He knew he had a fast time, despite dim light and snow made bumpy by warm temperatures and laborious side-slipping grooming from a volunteer crew who spent the night trying to smooth the surface. Miller's time held up for third place, just .09 seconds behind winner Didier Defago of Switzerland and .02 behind silver medalist Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway.
As he left the finish corral, he paused to pose for pictures, accept kisses. Nutty Swiss fans wearing red and white wigs asked him to sign their cowbell. He even managed to smile.
Is Miller a new man, perhaps wiser at 32, less defiant now that he's a father of a 2-year-old daughter?
He is and he isn't, and there you have the soul of Miller, a walking, double-talking contradiction.
He skis the same way. Miller won two silvers at the 2002 Olympics, two overall World Cup titles, 32 World Cup races. But in between those performances, he often bombed. Last season, he failed to win a single race, skipped the last four and went into semi-retirement.
He came back in September and decided to take the Olympics seriously — but with a sense of abandon. He was twitchy in the start house Monday rather than nonchalant. His friends and teammates noticed it.
"He was anxious, psyched, and I said, 'What, Bode, you nervous?' '' said Marco Buechel of Lichtenstein.
Miller, always a maverick in his sport, innovator of a style copied by his opponents, attacked a course that rewards aggression.
"This felt like the Olympics to me,'' he said. "I found the feeling I've been searching for. At the Olympics you get the chills, you're nervous, scared, you go through the roller coaster of emotions and you let it rush through your whole body.''
In 2006, he tried to treat the Olympics like any other World Cup event.
"In Torino I was ready and capable of winning and actually executed well, but I was not very emotional, and I treated it in a cold and clinical way,'' he said. "Today I was excited, and if I let myself get fired up, there's nobody who wants it more than me.''
Miller accepts that this is when the general public pays attention to skiing.
"The big games are more important, there's more stuff to them, more press, more environmental stimulation, more energy -- and that can be really positive if you feed off it,'' he said. "In the past, I've tried to repress that.''
On the other hand, Miller said he has not changed. He's still the iconoclastic sort, raised by parents in a house without electricity in the woods of New Hampshire (state motto: "Live Free Or Die''). "I've been doing the same things since age 3,'' he said.
But his seasons skiing independently of the U.S. team, traveling Europe in a motor home nicknamed the Bodemobile, and his months off from the sport gave him a chance to re-evaluate, to "sort out the minutiae,'' as he put it. Miller has a tendency to sound more like a psychoanalyst than a ski racer, and for that he gets portrayed as a jerk.
He's also said stupid things. Remember that he told 60 Minutes, "If you ever tried to ski while you're wasted, it's not easy.'' At the end of his medal-less 2006 Games, he said that at least he was able to achieve Olympic-level partying.
He was Bode being Bode, but at the flag-waving, politically correct Olympics, there's no room for sarcasm in the script.
He's got a new attitude.
"I wanted to ski race in a way that made me proud and inspired others,'' he said. "That's a much nicer feeling than the way it was before.''
Maybe he grew up. Or maybe he smartened up.
Asked Monday if he planned to tone down his social life this time around, he said: "The Olympics just started. Give me time.''