The Liberation of Bode Miller
Credit: Giovanni Auletta / AP

The first time I met Miller, he was being hassled by a police officer. It was a June morning five years ago, and I'd driven north through the White Mountains to the quirky hamlet of Franconia, New Hampshire, where his grandfather had established a rustic tennis camp decades ago. When I arrived at Miller's home, there was a local police cruiser parked there, and the cop was claiming that Miller's beat-up old Porsche had been seen hurtling along the local byways at Kitzbühelian speeds the previous week. It was less clear what the officer intended to do about it. "Asshole cop," Miller had said then. "I wasn't even home last week."

In person, he could be petulant, moody, maddening, like the overgrown adolescent he basically still was. Miller spent a good part of the day hiding from me, including taking a long afternoon nap on a basement couch. When he did sit for an interview, he attacked the premise of almost every question he was asked. When the recorder was switched off, though, he proved to be charming and relaxed and thoughtful, and a hell of a lot of fun to play quarters with.

When I returned to Franconia last November, much had changed. Miller owns his own farm now, a 630-acre spread on which he is attempting to grow organic produce for the marketplace. At 31, heavier and more mature, he had begun to think of a future for himself beyond skiing and partying with his New Hampshire pals. Yet some things had remained the same. Our interview that morning had been wide-ranging, often philosophical, but also intense and sometimes difficult. Afterward, as we walked out across the fields to visit his shaggy Highland cattle, I spotted a considerably newer and racier-looking Porsche parked beside a low wall, out of sight of the local constabulary.

"What's that nice car doing way out here?" I asked innocently.

There was a slight pause. "Resting," Miller said.

As was he, touching down here in Franconia between early stops on the World Cup circuit. It was a warm fall day, and the slopes of nearby Cannon Mountain, where he learned to ski, were still bare of snow. He is a slab of a man now, 6–foot-2 and 220 pounds, which is big for a ski racer; he breaks skis almost weekly. He gazes out from under the brim of a black ball cap with half-lidded eyes, giving a strong sense that he just might rather be doing anything else.

He had spent the morning working out at his family's barn, in which he and his uncle had built a customized weight-training machine years ago. You may remember the setup from Bode's segment on 60 Minutes three years ago, but chances are you recall only the headline from that show: Miller admitting to Bob Simon that he had skied "wasted."

Never mind that he was talking about racing with a hangover – specifically, the day after he had locked up the World Cup overall title (for the first time) in 2005 – or that athletes in other sports were getting picked up for much worse things than being drunk. Miller's comments were manna from heaven for lazy sports columnists everywhere, who fueled a nationwide uproar. The U.S. Ski Team forced an apology out of him, and he came into Turin off balance, his personal safety fences gone.

"He felt he had lost control of his desire and his love to ski," says his uncle and longtime coach Mike Kenney. "He felt that it hinged on the media's hype of him and winning gold medals – just like gold medals for sale."

In the Turin races a few miscues and untimely bobbles led to a sixth-place finish in the giant slalom and a painful-to-watch fifth in the downhill, where it seemed as if his skis were waxed with cement. In his other three events, he blew out of the course in one, missed a gate in another, and nearly crashed in the high-speed super-G, ending up sailing almost gracefully down the course on one ski, ballet-style. But there are no style points in alpine racing, and while fifth and sixth aren't that bad outside the Olympic context, Miller's no-show on the medals podiums qualified as a disaster.

Only Bode didn't see it that way. And he certainly didn't consider himself a fuck-up. When he said in ads for Nike that he didn't care whether he won a medal, and recruited people to become "Bodeists" – someone motivated by the experience, not the results – he meant it. "Sports have never been fun for me because other people get to watch," he told me. "It's fun to be able to fuckin' do 'em."

Worse still, he had the nerve to be seen out having too much fun in the bars near Turin, his tongue down the throats of various blondes. To the casual fan it looked as if he wasn't even trying – an offense serious enough to warrant a prime-time sermon from Bob Costas, that tribune of the armchair athlete. "Miller will now find out," Costas intoned, that "if you don't care enough to consistently give your best, and at least sometimes do your best, then pretty soon nobody else will care, either."

One group of people cared a great deal, it turned out. Embarrassed by Miller's comments about drinking, and by the men's team's dismal one-medal showing (then-unknown Ted Ligety won gold in the combined), the U.S. Ski Team brass decided to crack down, imposing a set of strict new rules that forbade athletes from drinking alcohol with coaches, among other things. Also, ski team members were now required to sleep at the team hotels – not in, say, their own motor homes, with their own king-size beds and personal chefs, as Bode had.

"So I'd be in my motor home until 10:30 at night, then get in my fuckin' car, drive over to the hotel, and sleep in the bed with another dude in the bed right next to me," Miller says. "It was just so pointless. It was the queerest thing you could possibly imagine."

It was also pretty much the wrong way to handle someone like Bode Miller, who grew up in mostly unfettered freedom, thanks to factors including his parents' divorce, the family's relative poverty, and an ingrained headstrong temperament that did not like being told what to do but instead insisted on him finding his own answers.

As he described it to me when we first met, five years ago, "It's like one of those things where, if you're gonna go out and mow the lawn, and then your brother or sister says, 'Hey, go out and mow the fucking lawn.' And then you're like, 'Fuck you, I'm not gonna mow the lawn. I'm gonna wait now.' "

So, sorry, U.S. Ski Team: Bode Miller was not going to mow your lawn. In May 2007, after a relatively lackluster post-Olympic season, he was summoned to a meeting in Park City, Utah, with head alpine coach Phil McNichol, alpine director Jesse Hunt, and CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Bill Marolt, who offered him two choices, each typed out on a piece of paper. The first option was to continue following the so-called Bode Rules, with one new twist: Now he'd have to pay the team, which was running short on cash, to cover his travel expenses. Option two was to leave the team altogether.

"It was like a four-year-old wrote those things," Miller scoffs now. "But it was almost a relief. There was no other option. It was either retire or do it right. And I'd always kinda wanted to do it right."