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Talented Miller returns, but will he perform at his level of excellence?

From the very first words out of Bode Miller's mouth, it was apparent that this day would be different."First of all, thank you guys for coming here,'' Miller said, opening his portion of a press conference in Los Angeles, at which he announced that he would be rejoining the U.S. Ski Team, and attempt to qualify for his fourth Olympic Games five months from now in Vancouver.

Miller is many things. He is arguably the most talented alpine racer ever to push boots into bindings, at times a genuine snow savant. He is inarguably the most accomplished racer in U.S. history, with 31 World Cup victories, four world championship gold medals and -- people so often forget -- two Olympic silver medals, at Salt Lake City in 2002.

He is also -- or was also -- a self-styled rebel from his earliest days, home-schooled and raised in a backwoods New Hampshire home without electricity by loving, fiercely countercultural parents who encouraged their children to take the road less traveled. Miller took that ball and ran with it from an early age and by the time he became an international ski superstar -- roughly 2003, when the won first of his two World Cup overall titles -- he was vigorously resisting any and all attempts to squeeze him into a conventional athlete-public-media relationship and challenging any attempt at analysis.

Miller would sit balefully on the dais (before and after victories) refusing to cooperate with even the most simplistic lines of questioning. (And, to be fair, some of them could be pretty damn simplistic). Once in Europe, a nervous journalist asked him to quantify the unquantifiable, asking a question that began with "How much energy....?'' And Miller responded with, "57. 57 energy," belittling the question, the questioner and the entire process.

He loved to explain that results were less important than the artistry of racing, often disparaging racers who beat him for playing it safe in pursuit of medals. (The more I've thought about this over the years of covering Miller, the more I'm convinced that he used that artistry defense at least partly as a means of escaping pressure. If you claim that results aren't important -- they are, of course - you can never fail, because the only barometer is your own. That said, he does like to chase the Perfect Run, too). He loved to explain that his inquisitors really didn't understand his sport, and you know what? They -- we -- probably did not, because Miller can bring some serious analysis to a ski run.

But the point is, Miller was almost never deferential. From a decade of that to "First of all, thank you guys for coming here,'' was stunning.

As it turns out, it was also appropriate. Four years after an epic meltdown that culminated with Miller -- the best ski racer in the world -- getting blanked out of the medals at the Turin Olympic Games while seemingly partying deep into the night, almost every night; two years after Miller separated from the U.S. Ski Team to race on his own and seven months after Miller left the World Cup tour before the finish of the 2009 season and strongly hinted at retirement, he is back.

But he was -- at least for one day -- a very different Miller, best expressed by his desire to re-join the U.S. team. In fact, after talking with U.S. Coach Sasha Rearick, Miller said it was "a no-brainer,'' to get back into the fold, citing increased support systems and his desire to re-connect with his younger teammates. (But not citing the crushing expense and time involved in running his own team, which had to be factors).

At the core of his decision was the same thing that brings every athlete back, near the end. He even named one such athlete. "I can relate to Brett Favre,'' Miller said. "You dedicate your life to your sport and you enjoy it. And then you walk away and there's obviously a big hole left where that sport was. Especially in my case; it's my main form of expression.''

The next five months will be an interesting ride, but two themes will carry the show:

• Is Miller trying to somehow atone for 2006? Here is what he said yesterday: "The intention was to come back and try to make everything positive, so it's not a regurgitation of the past.''

Fair enough. What, exactly, was Miller's crime in '06? He didn't win any medals, and he didn't seem to care. That can be incredibly annoying to sports fans (and media), but athletes are regularly forgiven for worse, like, using steroids or drowning pit bulls.

In the aftermath of the Turin Games, Miller told writer Jim Litke of the Associate Press that he was happy he got a chance "to party and socialize at an Olympic level,'' a spectacularly poor choice of words. Nine months later he told me what he meant was that he got a chance to party and socialize "at an Olympic venue.'' That's a big difference.

My take back then, and now, is that Miller didn't win medals in '06 because he wasn't fit enough to race at his best level. He trained indifferently in the spring and summer and when he committed to the Games, it was too late to catch up. (I watched him try at one point, throwing up on the pavement after pushing a rolling machine uphill near his family's home in New Hampshire). He is brilliantly talented, but as a young racer, he also trained very hard. Most athletes need both -- the talent and the preparation. He tried to cut a corner and came up short. Others said so at the time.

The partying? Miller has always liked that part of the game. He flaunted it in Sestriere (the ski racing resort) in '06 and he paid for it. He was asked on Thursday about perhaps apologizing for '06 and politely declined, taking a McGwire-esque approach. "Right now, I don't feel like this is an arena to apologize. My actions will speak more loudly than any apologies could.''

• Is Miller ready, at nearly age 32 (doddering for a ski racer) and with another modest offseason, to compete at his customary level. "Coming into the season in not the best shape is a little bit of a scary proposition,'' Miller said Thursday. He does not plan to ski in the season-opening giant slalom on a glacier above Soelden, Austria on Oct. 25, but hopes to begin racing three weeks later in Finland. That's quick.

Physically, it is a huge challenge. Not only in the short term, but in the long view, as well. Miller has the body of nearly-32-year-old ski racer, having long battled knee and back issues and last, year, an ankle injury from December that followed him into February. It would have been a challenge to catch up five years ago; now it will be daunting.

His return will be painted in broad strokes. "Bode's Redemption,'' and all that. It's an easy call from a storytelling standpoint. Pretty compelling, too. And maybe Miller feels the need to redeem himself, although the closest he came to saying that on Thursday, was to say, when asked if would "undo,'' anything from '06, "I'm not sure you can 'undo' anything, but if you have any ideas about that...''

Stepping back, here is what Miller has done: He's raised his sport to a higher level than any racer in history. He's made statistical history in his own country. He's made his own rules and been deeply buried for doing so.

The public tends to like its sports heroes -- particularly its Olympic heroes -- honorably clean (Joey Cheek) easily digestible (Michelle Kwan) or harmlessly funky (Shaun White). That has never been Miller and particularly not in 2006. Maybe he has changed. He has an 18-month old daughter and that will change most people at least a little. He's older, and that will change them, too.

But that's up to him and it's really simpler than that. He has been a great and passionate ski racer for most of his life, and he doesn't want to stop. The rest is just noise.

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