Wednesday December 9th, 2009

The machinery is fully cranked. Cameras are aimed, stories are in process (including one in Sports Illustrated), video packages have been assembled. In just over two months, the 2010 Winter Olympic Games will unfold in Vancouver and one U.S. skier will play the role of Michael Phelps, the athlete who can win multiple gold medals over the course of the Games, while delivering eyeballs to televisions and page views to Web sites. One athlete will be charged with monetizing the Olympic entertainment enterprise.

That athlete is Lindsey Vonn. Four years ago it was another ski racer, Bode Miller, whose performance in that role was a disaster. Miller came to the '06 Games having won the coveted World Cup overall title in 2005 and two gold medals at the world championships in that same year. There was little question he was the best ski racer in the world.

But Miller, who had skied in two previous Olympics (he won two silver medals at Salt Lake City in 2002), chafed at the Olympics' cookie-cutter idol-making process. Independent to a fault in the truest sense of his home state of New Hampshire, Miller fought the paradigm. He went oh-for-five in races, brazenly partied long and hard and dodged public comment except to smack around the ghosts of Bruce Jenner and Mary Lou Retton by explaining that his Games were not a disappointment because he was able "to party and socialize at an Olympic level.''

The skiing -- and the behavior -- cost Miller a big chunk of his reputation and made him an easy punch line. And make no mistake, he brought a lot of it on himself. Four years later, he is back, having ended a seven-month sabbatical in September, when he returned to the sport at age 32, and to the U.S. Ski Team, after running an independent program in the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Last Saturday in Colorado, he laid down a sensational, Miller-esque downhill, right on the edge of disaster, finishing fourth in a World Cup race.

When he announced his comeback in September, Miller declined to describe his feelings about the 2006 meltdown. (Asked if he would like to "undo'' '06, he said, "I'm not sure you can 'undo' anything, but if you have any ideas about that ... ''). This week he addressed it, most pointedly in the context of Vonn getting the star treatment in 2010.

"We know, going into the Olympics [in 2006], I was conflicted,'' says Miller, who had just finished playing in a celebrity tennis match arranged by Swiss luxury watch manufacturer Hublot, with whom Miller has a sponsorship arrangement. "I wasn't feeling great about where I was. And that's not the kind of person you want to have as your poster boy. I believed what I believed. But that didn't match up with what everyone else believed. And that was frustrating. To have everyone else put words in my mouth all the time, about how I should be feeling and what I should be doing, what my goals should be. ... That would be frustrating for anyone.

"It ended up being a negative experience,'' says Miller in a spectacular understatement.

Miller's description, four years later, isn't significantly different from what he was saying in 2006, but it goes down easier as history than it did as hype-rejection. In '06, Miller wrestled with the Olympic concept almost from the day he won his first world title in Bormio, Italy, in 2005. I remember this, because I followed him for most of that year. He truly didn't like being shoved into the jaws of expectation or the pre-packaging of Olympic heroes.

Maybe he didn't like it because he expresses a certain purity about skiing that can't be measured in medals. "It's been my stance since I was little,'' Miller said Monday, "that races are determined by a million other things. The result is only partly your fault. Part of it is other racers. Part of it is weather. It's not a sport where the result is primarily in your hands.''

You can debate all of this with Miller. Maybe he just didn't like the pressure in '06. He knew he was not in top condition. Either way, he handled the whole situation very poorly and while he's not apologizing for anything, it's clear he understands that he wasn't right for the part.

Vonn is. Don't be mistaken; Miller and Vonn have a lot in common. Both are gifted, dynamic skiers, the most successful U.S. World Cup skiers of their genders. Both love their sport. Both are independent to a point -- Miller ran his own team for two years, Vonn works in the summer with Austrian trainers and largely on snow with her husband, Thomas Vonn, a former U.S. Ski team and 2002 Olympic racer. But where Miller repels the mini-series packaging of Olympic athletes -- that's his personality -- Vonn accepts it. And that's her personality.

Miller can see it more clearly than most. "Lindsey's great,'' he says. "She's well sorted-out for that sort of stuff. She's got a great attitude about the sport. And the Olympics in general. And that's ideal. She is a perfect person for [the Olympic star role]. She's skiing at the top of her game. I don't think there's ever been an American skier as dominant,'' -- big words there -- "and I'm looking forward to seeing what she can do.''

As for what Miller can do, the jury is out and will remain out for several weeks. Chastened by '06, he's not even fully committing to the Olympic Games.

In his prime, Miller would do punishing dry-land training in June and July, lifting weights on a primitive machine in a barn on his family's property in New Hampshire and pushing a pavement roller up a stretch of rural highway, often throwing up at the end. He did his work intensely (although not so much leading to the '06 Games).

This year he did little of that, so he is late to skiing and late to training, not as fit as he would customarily be. He blamed fatigue for a late mistake in the Beaver Creek race. Whether he will be able to catch up is a mystery even to Miller. "You guys know me,'' he said on Monday to two writers who have covered him for several years. "Nothing is every really set. It depends on how I'm feeling and how my (chronically sore) knee reacts. I haven't done it this way before.''

Give him this much: He seems enthused. And part of that is clearly because the pressure is less intense, or at least different. "The expectations are different,'' he said. "People aren't putting words in mouth. Everyone is saying 'Why are you doing this?' I love the sport, I love working with kids. I'm trying to help the team, the team is trying to help me.'' All of these things appear to be true.

But one requirement -- above all others -- must be met before Miller signs on for his fourth Olympics. "The Olympics are a long way away,'' he said. "And it's one of those things where I want to be totally fired up and excited about it.''

This time.

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