Up until the point where he skied into the safety fence, things had been going pretty well for Bode Miller. It was his turn on the famed Hahnenkamm course in Kitzbühel, Austria – a World Cup downhill so intimidating that younger racers have been known to lose their nerve and back out of the start house. The treacherous course had already claimed one victim that day last January: American skier Scott Macartney, who had crashed terribly on the final jump and slid unconscious across the finish line.
For the first 27 seconds of his run, Miller attacked the course the way he always does, arcing a series of sweeping turns through the steep upper section. But then he mistimed a series of bumps, which jacked him back on his heels and threw him off balance, sending him careening off course at more than 65 mph.
His first instinct was to reach out and push off the fence with his left hand. Bad idea: He knew that if he did that, his tips would get stuck in the netting and he'd soon join his ex-teammate Macartney in intensive care. Miller quelled that reflex in favor of something just as dicey: He put his left ski on the fence, to brace himself and stay upright.
It worked, until the resulting drag threatened to spin him around into an eggbeater crash that would have ended his season, if not his career. At which point Bode did something only Bode could do: He popped his right ski up onto the fencing as well, regained his balance, and then managed to push himself off, leaping catlike back onto the narrow track as TV announcers shrieked amazement in five languages. Nobody in the World Cup had ever used the safety fence as his own personal halfpipe before.
Miller wasn't done wowing them yet. Having lost speed on the fence, he hunkered down into his tuck, flattened his skis against the snow, and let gravity pull his bulky frame toward the finish, faster and faster. By the time he rocketed off the final jump – flying the length of a football field through the air – he'd pushed the needle to almost 85 mph, fast enough for second place.
"I was hauling ass," Miller recalls, very nearly breaking into a smile. "I would've won that race by a lotta time, had I not hit that fence."
Turning near-disaster into glory has proven to be one of Miller's true talents. In the 2002 Olympic combined (downhill and slalom), he'd slid on his behind in the downhill at 60-plus mph and somehow won silver. He crashed through the finish of the Wengen downhill in 2007 and still took home gold.
But over the last two years Miller has executed his most thrilling save yet – that of his own career, which was on life support after his spectacularly disappointing performance at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Hyped to win as many as five gold medals, he instead came home empty-handed, his personal and professional reputation in tatters. But Miller has since rediscovered his passion for his sport, staking his claim as the greatest skier America has ever produced.
His turnaround began in May 2007, when he effectively fired the U.S. Ski Team and went out on his own. Miller took control not only of his training and racing program, but of his fabled drinking habit – and, well, his life. So far it's working. His second-place finish at Kitz, fence-running and all, kept him in contention for the 2008 World Cup overall title, which he ended up winning by a large margin. And his six World Cup race wins last season vaulted him ahead of the great Phil Mahre as the winningest American skier ever, with 31 victories and counting. This year he could surpass even that, with strong showings in both the slalom and giant slalom events, his two weakest last season. As the next Winter Olympics approaches – in Vancouver in 2010 – Bode Miller has to be considered a threat to win medals in all five alpine events. If he decides to show up, that is.