BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Skiing is a mystery to me. This probably has something to do with where I grew up, Cleveland, where snow was meant to be shoveled and scraped off your car and complained about. One year, the Olympic cross-country skier Bill Koch came to our whole school to show everyone how to cross-country ski in a park down the street. The park did not have any hills — really nothing even resembling a bump — and the “skiing” was a lot like walking through snow with sticks on your feet, and I just didn’t get it.
So, I stand at the bottom of the mountain in Colorado — here at the Birds of Prey World Cup skiing competition — and dusty snow blows into faces, and the wind chill is minus-3, and Bode Miller is coming down. People are going crazy. Still. Bode Miller is 36 years old. He has skied at every Olympics since 1998 — just about everybody was still using dial-up Internet then — and he has won five Olympic medals and he has crashed spectacularly and he still matters.
The question is: Why?
One thing that is plainly appealing about skiing is the friendliness. People are impossibly friendly up here in the mountains. Maybe it’s the cold that brings people together. Maybe it’s the altitude. Whatever, the veterans can spot a novice from a million miles away and they are happy to help out in any possible way. In my short time, strangers walked up to continuously make recommendations about what I should wear (layers), what I should drink (lots of water), what I should buy (new boots) and what I should avoid (running down hills — I wasn’t planning on it).
So I ask: Why does Bode Miller matter?
“He’s insane,” one guy wearing goggles and a face scarf says.
“He takes more chances than anybody else,” says another.
“He skies for fun,” says a third. “He doesn’t care about winning. He just wants to go fast.”
And, finally, this from a woman in a full pink and blue ski-outfit that looks like it was just used in a cartoon.
“He’s just Bode,” she says.
* * *
Bode Miller will tell you he’s easy to figure out. This, in part, seems to be what makes him so tough to figure out. Everything Miller says sounds simple and yet seems to shade some deeper meaning, some quiet belief that he might rather keep to himself. Then again, maybe it isn’t. Maybe he just means what he means.
For instance, at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics — after his much criticized no-medal performance in 2006 in Torino — he won three Olympic medals including his first, long-awaited, Olympic gold. That was in the super-combined (one run of downhill and another of slalom). When he crossed the finish line, he showed very little emotion. And then, after a second or two, he bowed his head and covered it it with his hands. He looked to much of the world as if all the pressure had lifted and his overwhelming feeling was relief.
Miller smiles when told that. “I guess it’s like art … people will see different things,” he says. What he says he was ACTUALLY feeling was not relief at all, but this overwhelming blur of pride and exhaustion and thrill and joy. Or, in Bode’s words,“What I thought,” he says, “was, ‘That was f——— awesome.”
Bode’s childhood is well-covered ground — he once challenged people to Google his name and “outhouse” just to see how many hits came up: (Answer: 6,600, but many of these are recounting his Google challenge). He grew up in New Hampshire, in the woods, where there really was no power and an outhouse. His father, Woody, would say that he and Bode’s mother Jo tried to avoid all commercial things, materialistic things, any real need for money. They were children of the ‘60s. When the great Marcel Hirscher — the reigning World Cup champion from Austria — admitted to having a Bode Miller poster on his wall, Miller said he never had a skiing poster on his wall when he was a kid. He added that he never had anything on his wall.
He was home-schooled until the third grade, and he spent more or less all his time outside picking up lessons from nature. In his interesting and plainly named autobiography “Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun,” he includes a letter his mother sent to the school district to explain why Bode would be be better off home-schooled.
“There is a young apple orchard, a bunch of small gardens, half-hidden amid the mountainous terrain (our main garden is in the valley below). We have a frog pond, a seesaw, slide, sandbox, playhouse and the clothesline. This is where we live. We love it, and we love learning from it. … Our children don’t want to go off to school every day and spend most of their time chained to a desk. They need to feel free to explore the world in their own way.”
Miller has never appreciated the way many have missed (or misrepresented) the wonder of his childhood, and the countless lessons he learned from it. He believes growing up as he did brought him closer to important ideas about what really matters in life … ideas he thinks other people might have missed. He can remember clearly as a small child going half-naked into the cold and breaking the ice on top of a brook so he could see the water go by. He can remember just being outside all the time, seeing the animals, studying them, skiing every day, pushing the limits of gravity, falling, getting up, reaching again and again for that feeling of speed that consumed him.
And, he came out of it all a little bit different from every other world-class skier. They were all thrill-seekers, of course, but someone had to be the craziest of the bunch. That was Bode. He was the one willing to cut the corner a little bit tighter. He was the one willing to hold his top speed a little bit longer. Mel Brooks says that when he was young and he walked into a room of comics, they all bowed to him — he was the comic’s comic. That’s was Bode. The other skiers were awed by what he could do, and what he tried to do. He was the skier’s skier.
Because of this extraordinary risk-taking he did things almost no one has done. He is one of only five men to win World Cup events in every discipline — downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G and super-combined. He is a two-time World Cup champion. His five Olympic medals are the most for any American skier, male or female. He is preparing for his fifth Olympics.
But because of this extraordinary risk taking, he has also lost spectacularly. He was leading the super-combined in Torino when he was disqualified, he missed gates in both the slalom and giant slalom. He was criticized again and again for partying too much and skiing too little — Gwenn Knapp, working for the San Francisco Chronicle, called him the biggest bust in Olympic history. But these sorts of wild swings are part of Miller’s persona. If you Google Bode Miller and DNF (for Did Not Finish) you get 93,900 results, many more than for outhouse.
“I knew I wasn’t going to ski well in 2006,” he says. “I told friends that before it started.”
This is how he skies. He wins. Or he crashes. He blows minds. Or he slides off course. He does not apologize for it. Heck, it’s part of what makes him so interesting in the first place.
* * *
Miller stands with his wife, Morgan, on the bottom of the hill, and he holds his daughter, Dacey, and he looks happy. People around him talk about how much he has changed in the last couple of years. Bode used to be about Bode, they say. Now, it’s different. He married Morgan last year. He has brought his daughter along to numerous events, and he sometimes holds her while doing interviews He has been in a public battle with an ex-girlfriend, Sara McKenna, over the custody of their 9-month old son — something Miller admits has embarrassed him — but they seemed to make some progress last week with a temporary agreement.
“Bode,” one friend says, “is different. He’s always been fun. But now, he knows what’s important. You see him holding his daughter and you think this is the happiest he’s ever been.”
Miller concedes the point. “I think about things differently,” he says.
Example 1: In the downhill competition in Beaver Creek, Miller was absolutely electrifying at the top of the hill. He had the fastest time through the first two time intervals — signaled by green lights on the scoreboard — and had the crowd in a frenzy. Then, toward the bottom of the mountain, he made a couple of mistakes (“Stupid things I wouldn’t do one time in 100,” he would say) and ended up falling out of the Top 10. It was disappointing, in some ways.. But when he got to the bottom of the hill, Dacey was there to hug him and shout, “You got two greens!” Miller could not help but smile and admit, sure, two greens was pretty good.
Example 2: In the giant slalom competition, Miller was in second place behind fellow American Ted Ligety after the first run. There are two runs in giant slalom, but already people were congratulating him, patting him on the back, talking about how great it was. Miller had not made a podium — top three — in two years. Dacey was excitedly telling Ligety that her father was in second place. “Not yet,” Ligety said with a smile. And that, Miller admitted, helped clear his head, remind him of what was left to do, and he had a great second run (he ended up second to Ligety).
It isn’t just family, though, that has changed MIller. It is age. It is health. Miller had major knee surgery in early 2012 that many thought would end his career. People wondered if Miller COULD come back from such an injury and, perhaps as much, wondered if he even WANTED TO come back from such an injury. He’d already accomplished just about everything. And the sport is for the young. The aforementioned World Cup champion Marcel Hirscher is 24 — he was 8 years old when Miller competed at his first Olympics.
“I never doubted that I would come back,” MIller says. He changed his workout program. He changed his focus as a skier. He changed his equipment. It took a long time, but now he says that the knee feels great — better than ever before. He says that he still has a lot that he wants to do in the sport. The thrill of it still grabs him. The competition still drives him.
“You have to battle guys who are younger and fresher and better skiers in a lot of cases,” he says. “But, you know, I do have some advantages. My intensity. My ability to test the limits is, if not the best in the world, it’s right there. I know I can get something out of myself that other guys can’t.”
* * *
Nobody really knows how Bode Miller will perform in Sochi. Well, maybe Bode does. But nobody else. He has had some encouraging performances during this season — particularly in Beaver Creek — and he had some discouraging ones too. Even the experts who analyze such things do not feel great about making any predictions. “Bode,” NBC’s skiing analyst Steve Porino says to reporters who ask, “will forever suspend by disbelief.”
But, in some ways, how he does in Sochi is the last thing that matters in the skiing world. Here at the bottom of the mountain the point is that he’s back, skiing full speed, taking wild risks other skiers wouldn’t take, skiing at breakneck speed for reasons that the skiers here — the beginners, the experts, the lifers — all seem to understand.
“I follow a simple plan,” he wrote in his book. “Go fast, be good, have fun. It isn’t a mantra; I don’t have it tattooed anywhere, or on my license plate. It’s just what I live by.”
Miller says he still lives by that. Go fast. Be good. Have fun. Simple to understand. The only thing: He doesn’t tell you in what order he puts them in.
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