The Liberation of Bode Miller

Mj 618_348_the liberation of bode miller
Giovanni Auletta / AP

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.

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.”

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.”

“What if I quit right now?” Bode wants to know. “What if I get injured this next week and don’t race again? Because if I get injured this next season, I’ll probably stop. Why not? I’ve got a lot else to do.”

We’re in the living room of his farmhouse on Streeter Pond Road, and the interview has gotten heated. There are clothes strewn around, two sets of golf clubs, a compound hunting bow, and a high-powered BB gun with a laser scope, good for pinging deer at long range. The surroundings call his bluff for him: This is not the home of a man close to settling down to raise organic beets.

With Vancouver and 2010 fast approaching, he knows he’s going to have to face the media circus all over again. Or not; hence his regularly scheduled threats to quit. “I’d have to just not race next year,” he says. “Because if I start to race, then try to stop, or skip the Olympics, that’ll be a fucking gong show. It’ll be like, ‘Oh, are you trying to hide from it, hide from failure? What are you trying to do?’ ”

The public, he says, “either wants to see you win a medal or not, so they can decide whether to call you a shithead or not.

“If you’re only trying to win a medal,” he goes on, “then yeah, doping makes a lot of sense, trying to cheat makes a lot of sense. Why not do a Tonya Harding kind of thing and try to take somebody else out?”

While it may not play well with Bob Costas, the medals and the crystal globes continue to matter far less to him than the pursuit of them and the quality of that pursuit. He cites former teammate Daron Rahlves – a champion downhiller who also came up short in his quest for an Olympic medal – as an example of an athlete who let external goals eclipse his pursuit.

“If you’re Daron, and you just want that gold medal, go and fuckin’ buy a gold medal,” he says. “He’s already proven he can win. He’s already proven he’s the best in the world. He’s let that pursuit of the gold medal make him be a disciplined person, a role model for kids, all these different things – that’s the pursuit. But people like Daron don’t always know what they’re doing. . . . “

Miller likes to think that he does know what he’s doing, so much so that this year he’s flying with just two fairly inexperienced coaches, Forest Carey and Craig Daniels; in print, Miller has referred to them as “coordinators,” not coaches. (McBride and Kenney both begged off, not wanting to leave their families for another eight months on the circuit.)

After a strong first couple of races, Miller hit a rocky patch, with mediocre finishes in Lake Louise, Canada, in late November, followed by a nasty crash at the Birds of Prey downhill at Beaver Creek. One had to wonder if Miller could have used some strong coaching just about then.

“He’s kind of a know-it-all,” says McBride, who worked with Miller on dry-land conditioning this summer. “He needs the right person to help him, calling bullshit on things or kicking him in the ass to go work out. And making hard decisions about what we’re gonna do.”

As to the big decision Miller will have to make in the 12 months until Vancouver, only he can make the call. But it’s also clear that quitting is the last thing he’d want to do. From the age of three, when the icy slopes of Cannon Mountain became his day care center and six-hour-a-day PE class, skiing has been his love, the path by which he seeks perfection. “As a skier, when you race, you are never gonna have a perfect run,” he says. “You don’t even have a perfect section, or a perfect turn. But what’s every athlete out there doing, still, over and over? They’re pursuing it; they’re trying, anyway. That’s what I’ve been doing for 25 years.”

To think he’d throw away all that work and not take the chance to show his most perfect run to the world – and, more important, to prove his detractors wrong – just doesn’t make sense. “What I tell him,” says Kenney, “is that if you even take one year off, you will not believe how much you’ll miss it.”

Which brings up one last question. When I ask whether he still “skis for fun,” Bode looks at me incredulously. “This is fun,” he says. “It’s why I do it.”

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