The way that veteran alpine skier Bode Miller talks of his first Olympic experience in Nagano, Japan in 1998, when he was just 20 years of age, it's like it was just meant to be.
"It is the Olympics and I've always thought of myself as the hero who was going to do something amazing, and that's the environment you want to be in," he recalled, unshaven, goggle-tanned and in sandals, to a large Park City, Utah conference room filled with media in September. "So I went in there, even though I wasn't prepared and I wasn't really that great of a racer at the time -- I certainly had a lot of growing to do -- I went in there with my strongest weapon, which was my mind. And I remember at the start of the GS (giant slalom), being really confident that I was going to medal. I was sure about it. And then I made it about 15 gates and went cartwheeling out of the course, and got back in and made it about 15 more gates and crashed again," he pauses to chuckle, "and went about 10 more gates and ended up cartwheeling into the finish too, to the raucous applause of the whole Japanese fan base there."
OK, so maybe not. Sure, Miller's Olympic career got off to an inauspicious start, but the United States' best male ski racer of all time -- a title not really up for much debate given he has won the most Olympic medals by an American with five in four Games, the most World Cup races by an American man with 33, to go along with two World Cup overall crowns -- has learned quite a bit over his equally celebrated and scrutinized career. Today, he understands that it's not necessarily how you begin, but how you end.
The ever-acerbic Miller, known as much for his willingness to push all limits as for his dry wit, was always characterized as unruly, rebellious and defiant in his younger days. But now 36, off of a year away from the sport due to major microfracture surgery on his left knee and following rehab and a bit of a mental recharge, the third-oldest racer on the men's World Cup tour is in better physical shape, perhaps more introspective, and freely prepared to stare down the pronounced echoes of legacy as he enters the latter stages of his time on the slopes.
"Legacy is, I think, a strange term," Miller explained, "and it's hard to think about, in terms of how it applies to reality. I think it represents the whole process and I think I'm happy with where I'm at. I look back on it, I wouldn't change very much. Some of the races that I've had that I'm proud of are races that are nothing short of miracles. The times where it's gone crappy for me, I would never change the two. I would take one for the other, every single time."
As Miller began tuning up for his fifth Olympic appearance in Sochi during the World Cup season, doubts loomed over what he had left. Three podium finishes, one in GS (second), one in downhill (third) and one in super-G (second), have helped to quiet any remaining uncertainties.
"I'm gonna kick ass," he whispered coyly, only half kidding, to plenty of audience laughter. "I don't know how in-depth you want me to go with that, but that's the gist of it.
"Obviously it's a perishable process, being a ski racer," he added. "And I think until you're all rotten or shriveled up, you should keep going. I'm pretty shriveled up, but not all the way rotten. At least not yet."
If Miller's career is one of the countless races in which he's participated, as he barrels down the hill in some foreign land at risky speeds and going for broke, then the only question remaining is, how close is he to the finish?