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Kovacevic: Aging bodes well for more Olympians

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, 6:57 p.m.
 

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Bode Miller swooped across the finish line, then glanced back at the big scoreboard at the base of the Rosa Khotur slopes.

He shouldn't have bothered. He knew.

His body language did the talking from there, as he trudged over to a nearby fence and sat on his skis, head tilted forward.

“I'm disappointed,” Miller would say Sunday of his eighth-place finish in the Olympic men's downhill, an event in which he'd won two of the three training runs. He finished in 2 minutes, 6.75 seconds, 0.52 seconds behind gold medalist Matthias Mayer of Austria. “I took a lot of risk and made a couple small mistakes.”

One was a doozy about midway down, when he took a precariously tight line around a turn and plowed through a panel. He never recovered, and Austria's little-known Mayer took his gold.

But Miller, 36 and in his fifth Games, will be back. His type always is. He'll try again to become the oldest to win an Olympic alpine race Friday in the super-combined, his best event. Or the three races that follow.

And I won't lie: I'm pulling for him. Not out of favoritism or nationalism. I'm pulling for all the old guys and gals at these Olympics, all those who pioneer into new age territories.

How can you not?

Whether young or old, there's something intrinsically invigorating about believing that we can do what we love forever. That nothing and no one, not even Father Time, can cut us short.

People like Miller make that real.

And the best part is that he's hardly alone.

The International Olympic Committee, concerned that the Games' events, participants and audience were getting too old, added the snowboard sports for Salt Lake City in 2002. That made an immediate difference and still does today. Average age of the halfpipe/freestyle skiers here in Sochi is 21. Most are teens.

But something funny happened: Even as the Olympics got hipper through the likes of Shaun White describing being “stoked” to win a gold medal, they kept getting older. At least the participants did. The average age of a U.S. Olympian in 1984 at the Sarajevo Games was 21.1. At the previous Games in Vancouver, it was 25.8. Here, it's 26.1.

A little of that has to do with adding curling in 1998. The average age of a curler is 39.9. All four of the U.S. delegation's athletes 40 or older are curlers. But the snowboarders pretty much cancel that out.

The obvious explanation is that athletes have it better than ever.

Dr. Freddie Fu, the Pittsburgh-based internationally renowned pioneer and authority in sports medicine, emailed me this explanation Sunday: “First is the natural ability of some to avoid injury and maintain a high level both mentally and physically. Two, better medical care, prevention, physical and mental training, nutrition, surgery advancement and recovery. Third, better equipment and coaching. You need an excellent coach.”

I'll add an intangible, too, one personified by someone like Miller.

We humans tend to take our responsibilities a bit more seriously into our 30s. When Miller was an Olympic rookie at Nagano in 1998 and would spout stuff like, “I want to ski as fast as the universe will allow,” he didn't back it up. He was immature, irresponsible. As a result, even as maybe the greatest skier America has known, his Olympic gold count remains at just one, that as an adult in Vancouver.

Now?

“I'm a totally different person,” Miller said just before these Games. “I have so many more of the pieces in place to make me feel stable and solid and capable of putting together the exact performance that I'll need. In '98, I was basically throwing the dice.”

I'll say it again: I'm pulling for him.

And I'm really pulling for Mexican skier Hubertus von Hohenlohe. He's 55, if you can believe it, and this is his sixth Games. They call him “the Most Interesting Man in the World” after the Dos Equis TV ad, only he lives it: He's great-looking, an immaculate dresser, speaks five languages, has recorded eight albums as a Euro pop star, used to hang with Andy Warhol and, oh, yeah, skis in the Olympics every four years.

Did I mention he's also considered an actual prince in Germany?

Yeah, go Hubie!

Same for Marit Bjorgen.

At 33 years and 324 days, the Norwegian cross-country legend this weekend became the oldest woman to win gold. Sympathetic to a teammate whose brother died the previous day, she honored the teammate with the medal. She's already got plenty.

And, um, Petr Nedved?

It's true. Two decades after his time with the Penguins, he's 42, he's still flicking that potent wrister, and he's here to represent the Czech Republic.

Upon facing the North American hockey media over the weekend, Nedved quipped, “I knew you guys didn't think I was still playing. Here I am.”

And, of course, here's Jaromir Jagr, too.

Jagr, like Miller, began with the Olympics in Nagano, winning a stunning gold with the Czechs. He's also 42, he's the leading scorer of the New Jersey Devils, and it's looking increasingly likely he will, as he once famously promised in Pittsburgh, play until he's 50.

A few weeks ago back home, I asked Jagr if he was coming to the Olympics.

“Which one?” came the reply. “What's after Sochi?”

 

 
 


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