The Liberation of Bode Miller
Credit: Giovanni Auletta / AP

As a kid Bode Miller was actually not a very good ski racer. "Sort of a ragged little scrapper" is how his uncle Mike describes him. He didn't blip onto the national radar until the relatively late age of 16, and his unorthodox style drove coaches mad. He skied fast, but he leaned so far back on the tails of his skis that he was nearly out of control. Coaches tried to get him to fix his flaws and adopt a more conventional style, but he resisted.

It didn't matter to him that his results were wildly uneven. Even when he started racing World Cups, it seemed as though he would either win the race or (more often) go into the nets. He had his own ideas, and he wasn't about to let a little failure dissuade him. When it worked, his style let him ski faster than just about anyone. It also made him great at recoveries, because he was so close to crashing all the time. The important thing, to him, was that it was his way of skiing, a style he had developed as a little kid, trying to keep up with his aunts and collegiate-skier uncles on the slopes of Cannon Mountain.

That's what most journalists didn't grasp: The thing that made him different from other athletes was not his hippie parents, or the fact that their home had an outhouse, but his organic, almost artistic approach to skiing. His uncanny feel for the snow and his preternatural sense of balance allow him to be creative on the course, skiing lines that most other racers would never dare. "He uses sport as a method of expression," says Kenney.

Coaches and institutions, in Miller's view, only got in the way, hijacking his goals with their own. Now he had a golden opportunity. He could fire all his coaches, or at least the ones he didn't like. Within 48 hours of the May 2007 meeting in Park City, Miller and his agent Lowell Taub began laying the groundwork for Team Bode, his Team of One. First they recruited a team of supercoaches. One of the first calls went to John "Johno" McBride, 43, the ski team's former head super-G and downhill coach. McBride had already retired from the team once but had been persuaded to return as Bode's main coach for the 2006–'07 season.

Miller persuaded two other coaches to come onboard: his uncle Mike Kenney, who had been a pro racer and sometime U.S. Ski Team coach, and Forest Carey, another U.S. coach and a former schoolmate of Miller's at Carrabassett Valley Academy. He would also have his own ski technicians, personal assistant, and chef – who would have to be fed, housed, and flown around the world on Miller's dime. His original RV has grown to a fleet of three custom motor homes, with one tricked out as a full-scale training gym, another serving as his living quarters, and a third for his coaches and staff – all of whom, of course, have to be paid. The price of freedom: just under $1 million.

Even for Bode Miller – whose agent estimates his total income to be in the "mid-seven figures" – that's a lot of money. But separating from the ski team also had considerable financial advantages. "It opened up new platforms for us," says Taub. "We no longer had to worry about competing with U.S. Ski Team sponsors," who dictated what kind of jacket Miller could wear, among other things. This year, he added a handful of new sponsors, including ultra-luxe Hublot watches and Madhouse Munchies, organic Vermont potato chips.

The real upside was the ability for Miller to create his own perfect little Bode Bubble. "The thing that was great about coaching Bode was you actually don't coach," says Kenney. "Your real job is creating an environment around him that values and appreciates athleticism. Not necessarily just through skiing, but through tennis, squash, soccer, hockey – we played tons of hockey last year. They're as important to keeping him even and sharp and enjoying the sport, enjoying the process of being involved in athletics, as skiing."

Of course with freedom came responsibility. Miller was now the boss, with employees to manage and paychecks to sign. "Managing my own team was a whole different challenge," he says. He knew that if he got hurt, Team Bode (which he has officially dubbed Team America) would screech to a halt. "With the ski team there was always a safety net," he says. Leaving the ski team also meant he no longer had anyone else to blame. Team America would live or die based on how he performed.

Miller had another reason to get serious, one that he doesn't like to talk about much. He had just lost someone close to him in a freakish North Country tangle of blood and retribution. Just days after he decided to split from the U.S. Ski Team, his 24-year-old cousin Liko Kenney (Mike Kenney's nephew) was pulled over by a Franconia policeman named Bruce McKay on the road leading to the family farm. Franconia is a small town, and McKay was known to be hard on the local kids, including Bode, to whom he'd written at least one $500 speeding ticket. McKay also was the officer visiting the Millers the first time I interviewed Bode, in 2003.

McKay had a special zest for harassing Liko, who was something of a lost soul, and quick to anger. They'd clashed before, which was why Liko told people he felt the need to keep a gun in his car. By the time their last run-in was over, Liko had shot McKay to death by the roadside. A passing motorist then killed Liko with the officer's gun. The town is still traumatized.

"I was close with my cousin; I'm close with my whole family," says Miller, growing somber and choosing words carefully. "But I didn't approve of the way that Liko was, the way that he had lived his life."

Coming at the same time as his split with the team, Liko's death helped underscore the need for Miller to do whatever he needed to do in order to reclaim his spot at the pinnacle of skiing. "It was a maturing thing for him, seeing the fleetingness of life," says Kenney. "It makes everyone ask what they stand for. You tend to reflect."

Over the summer of 2007, Miller began to change. The old Bode liked his summer beer parties and sometimes showed up to training camp a little out of shape. But the new Bode honed himself into razor-sharp fitness. With a new emphasis on strength and agility, he put himself through endless drills to develop the quickness that's so essential to his seat-of-the-pants style of ski racing. His mobile gym included an e-centric weight-lifting machine by Agaton (it lifts the weights hydraulically, and Bode lowers them, reducing the potential for knee strain). He did many weight exercises on an advanced $10,000 vibration plate that mimics the chatter of an icy ski run.

"He trained harder off snow than he ever had," says Johno McBride. "When you're writing the check for hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for it all, you realize, Hey, I'd better know what I'm doing."

Miller sequestered himself from the media, giving interviews only rarely. And after fighting the ski team on the drinking issue, insisting all the while that alcohol didn't affect his performance, he decided he would stop drinking after all. He went cold turkey in early August 2007, as he prepared to head to training camp in New Zealand. He didn't drink on his 30th birthday that October, or at New Year's, or even to celebrate winning big races like the Wengen downhill in early January. He didn't drink when he went out in ski town bars with other ski racers. "That was a really good test,'' he says. "It sucked sometimes."

But surely it helped his racing, I suggest. "It made no difference at all," he declares. "It was exactly how I would have predicted it."

The results suggest otherwise. After a slow start to the 2007 season, Miller won the Bormio downhill in December – and then took five more first places and a handful of seconds, including one at Kitzbühel. He hadn't performed so reliably in years. "It made a huge difference," Kenney says.

He looked like a different skier from the guy who had flailed in five events at Turin. Miller's style had always seemed reckless, all windmilling arms and thrilling recoveries as he tested the laws of physiology and physics. But the old, out-of-control Bode made only rare appearances last year. In the speed events – downhill and super-G – he now seemed solid, sure of his line, and really, really fast. He was on. Even when he skied into the fence at Kitz, it looked almost as if he had meant to do it. He was in fact skiing more carefully, holding back in his downhill training runs so he could get a better feel for the course. He very nearly won the overall downhill title, but the last race was canceled.

GS and slalom were another story. He couldn't finish a slalom to save his life, and didn't get anywhere near the podium in GS, where he'd been world champion and a reliable race winner. "It reflects poorly on me, and it reflects poorly on Head," he says with characteristic frankness of the sporting goods giant. "No one's won a race on Head in fucking GS ever, I don't think."

Yet Miller didn't just trash his sponsor and leave it at that. When he decided his GS and slalom skis weren't up to par, he flew to the Head factory in October 2007 and designed his own boards. He dubbed the new slalom ski "Beefy" and tried to race on it for the first half of the season. Beefy proved all but unskiable, even for Bode, yet it took a few months for that truth to penetrate his stubborn skull. He did not finish three out of the first four slaloms and finished 26th in the fourth. But only after a disastrous race at Adelboden, where he blew out at the sixth gate, did he give up on Beefy.

By midseason Head had gotten the message and delivered better skis; meanwhile Bode had figured out how to deliver better skiing. On Mondays, while other teams were recovering from the weekend's racing and attendant celebrations, he would be up on the hill already, training slalom, his greatest weakness.

It paid off. Miller scored a fifth in the Wengen slalom in February, giving the world a glimpse of the Bode Miller who used to rock the gates. In the Super Combined he backed off the speed and made it down enough slalom courses to win that title outright, scoring the points necessary for him to lock up the overall. "He's definitely become a smarter skier over the last few years," says the Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety, a friend of Bode's. "He used to just go balls-out in any section of the course."

This past November, in the first slalom of the 2008–'09 season, at Levi, Finland, Miller stunned the field by finishing second – his first slalom podium in years – which must give pause to his competitors. "It's just gonna be scary this year," says Ligety. "He'll most likely blow everybody away. It's his to lose."