By Patrick Lang
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado (Reuters) - Leaner and keener, Bode Miller made it back on a World Cup podium after an 18-months break from skiing on Sunday and called his spectacular recovery "a redemption".
The once maverick poster boy of American skiing, now a married man and father of two, displayed his exceptional natural talent once again to finish second in a men's giant slalom 1.32 seconds behind compatriot Ted Ligety in Beaver Creek.
While Ligety's victory, his fourth consecutively in the Colorado resort, was almost business as usual, Miller's runner-up placing was a genuine sensation.
Forced out of skiing for more than a year by a knee operation, the old man of the circuit at 36 had not been on a World Cup podium for 22 months.
His resurrection was all the more spectacular as it took place in a giant slalom, a discipline in which he had not finished in the top three since 2007 in Lenzerheide.
Ligety, the man who replaced him at the helm of American skiing, was the first to congratulate his team-mate.
"It's awesome to see Bode back here. He's a little bit up and down in training but he managed to pull it together today," Ligety said.
The crowd discovered quite a different Miller in the finish area.
Fitter after losing weight in the summer, the usually indifferent champion raised his fist after crossing the line, a sign that the result meant a lot to him.
And it did, especially in front of his wife, beach volleyball player and model Morgan Beck, who now travels with him and his daughter on the World Cup circuit.
"It's so funny to be sandwiched behind these two young guys," said Miller, who finished half a second ahead of Austrian overall World Cup holder Marcel Hirscher.
"When I skied my first Olympics, Marcel was probably still jumping around in a playground. But while I was away, Ted and Marcel took the GS to a level which did not exist when I left," he added.
Yet Miller showed he still had the adaptability to remain a contender.
Starting with the number 31 bib on his back, he fought a promising battle in the morning run.
"I knew after the first run that I was there. I only wanted to make sure to get the message across in the second," said the American, who was second fastest in each leg.
He might be the oldest man on the World Cup circuit with Swiss downhill Olympic champion Didier Defago, yet Miller still retains the ambitions of a rookie.
And he said he was now especially keen to shine again in slaloms, a discipline in which he has not won a race in nearly a decade.
"Today is a redemption and what I did here, I want to do it again in slaloms. That's also the reason why I'm so skinny and dynamic," Miller said.
He warned that he might never have been in such great form.
"There are still bits and pieces to adjust. But in the past when I skied here in Beaver Creek, I had no legs left in the Golden Eagle (section). Now seriously I could have done a couple more gates," he said.
The super-combined Olympic champion also made clear that he would be ready to defend his crown and look for others in Sochi.
"The Olympics, of course, it's important. We'll try to slip it in between other races. I want to win each race I enter," he said.
(Reporting by Manuele Lang, editing by Gene Cherry)