On the mountain, Bode Miller channels the fearlessness of his late brother
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – There was this shaggy-haired young guy hitting golf balls up a hillside, sending big, banana slices into distant grass, from where they would probably never be retrieved. “Nice shot, Chilly,” said Bode Miller to his little brother, Chelone. Maybe he was being sarcastic; though with Miller it’s not always evident.
This was in the summer of 2005, when I was on one of several trips to New Hampshire, part of a yearlong Sports Illustrated project detailing Bode Miller’s preparation for the 2006 Turin Olympics (yes, the notorious party Olympics). Chelone Miller was seven years younger than his brother, a gifted and daring snowboarder. Under a warm New England sun, the brothers batted a few words back and forth. It was an unmemorable moment made memorable by things that happened much later, which is sometimes what happens with unmemorable moments.
Late Sunday morning on an unforgiving course that falls sharply from snarling grey rocks in the mountains north of Sochi, Bode Miller, 36, will race his third -- and almost certainly final -- Olympic downhill. He will scream down the demanding hill, racing the clock and dozens of other skiers (very few of whom are capable of winning the race or any of the three medals), and a few seconds more than two minutes after pushing out of the start house he will slam his skis to a stop in the finish area, one race closer to the end of a remarkable and remarkably complex Olympic career.
These are Miller’s fifth Olympics, the most of any U.S. alpine skier (his five medals are also the most; nobody else has more than three), and those five appearances represent a staggering range of outcomes. In 1998 he was a promising 20-year-old who hiked slalom gates to milk more from the experience. In 2002, he was an ascendant talent with a back story that stretched plausibility, and won two silver medals. In 2006, he was the best skier in the world, who rebelled against everything connected with Olympic hype, won nothing and delivered the breathtaking tone-deaf analysis that he had at least been able to “party and socialize at an Olympic level,” while U.S. Ski Team brass held a press conference to address his meltdown. In 2010, he was not just brilliant, winning a full set of three medals, but earnest as well.
This kaleidoscope of performances and reactions is not out of character for Miller, who embraces his own self-styled iconoclasm like few other iconoclasts.
But there is also this: Miller is skiing superbly well. On Jan. 18, he finished fifth in the endless downhill of Wengen, Switzerland, and a week later he dominated training for the storied Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbuehel, Austria, before making one mistake on race day and finishing third (a result that he called “heartbreaking,” not because he has never won on Hahnenkamm, but because outsiders underscored Miller’s readiness to win, and soon). “He’s been fast all year,” says Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal, who most would consider the downhill favorite, but who conferred that status upon Miller after Saturday's final training run. “[Bode] has been the best skier on this mountain,” Svindal said. “Right now he looks like the favorite.”
After posting the fastest time in the first training run, Miller coldly analyzed the field’s chances.
“This course is long enough, and it’s got a lot of dynamic sections,” he said. “Rather than eliminating a certain group from the medals, it just means [that group] will have to struggle through certain sections and really execute on the parts where they’re good and see if they can pull time back. There are a few guys who don’t really have that many weak sections. Luckily, I’m one of them.” On Saturday, after scorching the upper section, Miller said looked ahead, saying, “Race day is always different. It's always hard to stay calm. This course.... on some courses if you have too much intensity you go slower. On this, I don't think that's the case.” He paused. “I'm gonna be ready. I want to win.”
In a sense, it is never really a surprise when Miller skis fast; he is, and always has been, one of the most dynamic ski racers in history. Yet the years between Vancouver -- which many thought might have been his farewell Olympics -- and Sochi have been wildly turbulent. In October of 2012, he married professional volleyball player Morgan Beck; four months later, another woman gave birth to Miller’s second child and 10 months after that Morgan Miller had a miscarriage with what would have been the couple’s first common child. Miller currently shares custody of his year-old son with biological mother Sara McKenna, although a final custody resolution is unresolved and has been covered salaciously by the tabloid media.
Athletically, Miller underwent microfracture surgery in late 2012 in attempt to cull more mileage from a left knee that had bothered him since a nasty crash at the 2001 world championships in St. Anton, Austria. In recent years, Miller has become interested in horse racing and become friends with thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert. In the spring of 2012, I talked to Miller at Baffert’s barn during Kentucky Derby week and he expressed uncertainly about continuing his ski-racing career. He didn’t race at all in the 2013 season and returned to the World Cup circuit only late this fall.
Yet nothing that happened in Miller’s life between Olympics compares to the death of his younger brother. Three months after I saw Chelone "Chilly" Miller hitting errant shots in New Hampshire, he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a dirt bike crash not far from the family’s home. He survived and pressed forward with vigor, but battled frequent seizures related to the injury. On April 7 last year, he was found dead of an apparent seizure in his van, which was parked in a friend’s driveway in Mammoth Lakes, California. The loss rocked Miller. In a story by ESPN.com’s Wayne Drehs, Miller says he and his wife spent a night in his deceased brother’s van, to help cope with his death.
The probing of Miller’s psyche by ski media has long been a recreational sport that alternately intrigued and infuriated Miller (and the media), depending on the day. Ski analysis is a safer harbor. Yet it is clear that there was a connection between the Miller brothers that enhanced both of their lives, particularly after Chilly’s crash. It helps inform the Bode narrative. As part of an award-winning 2011 film called The Story produced by the Ski Channel, Chilly Miller says, “After my accident we became a lot closer because I think [Bode] sort of realized that he could lose his brother at any given point.”
In the film, the Miller brothers are shown fishing together and Bode says, “I know my brother has a lot to offer in the way he thinks. He’s one of the few people who really sees the beauty and the importance of experiencing the world the way it is. There’s a different kind of beauty when you’re actually out in the moment and you can see the world as it is.”
Bode and Chilly grew up seeing the world in the same way, raised by their parents in New Hampshire without modern comforts but with the freedom to explore as their imagination conceived. In Bode’s 2005 biography, Bode: Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun, Miller wrote of his little brother, “He was as much a wood troll as I was. In the middle of the winter, loggers would find him wandering the woods far from home and give him their gloves. If he heard a noise, he’d check it out; he could be gone all day and nobody worried.” And this: "By virtue of being the youngest, Chelone became something of a barbarian. Of course I mean that in the nicest possible way. He always kept up with us, despite being half our size. He's uncommonly intelligent and a great athlete."
Chilly shifted from skiing to snowboarding at an early age and was not just good, but remarkably daring. For much of his life, he operated outside the mainstream, travelling to events or simply riding with friends while living out of his van. Rather than trying to win national titles or make Olympic teams he would be seen pulling huge moves in videos and photos. Three-time Olympian Nate Holland, who will race snowboardcross next week in Sochi, was a friend of Chilly’s.
“Chilly would come and go,” says Holland. “You’d see him at a few [snowboardcross] races and then he would disappear off the map and next thing, you’d see a photo of him getting huge air in Superpark [an annual competition]. But he was a snowboarder’s snowboarder. He would show up in his van, park in the driveway and just go.”
Whatever quirks attended his lifestyle, Chilly was deeply respected for his skills and his courage.
“His best attribute as a snowboarder was the size of his balls,” says Holland. “Off the hill, he was the nicest guy in the world. But on the hill he was a complete charger; he had this switch and he would flip it and whether he was in a race or Superpark, he was just go. I mean you would see some guys get to the top of the pipe and just assess the situation and Chilly was out there sessioning.”
It is difficult to miss the connection to his brother. Bode Miller has long skied lines that most skiers won’t attempt. Ski racing and snowboarding are distinctly different, yet share a certain risk-reward quality that the Miller brothers embraced more than most.
In the last years of his life, Chilly refused to back off from riding, despite frequent seizures. He once fell 25 feet off a chairlift at Mammoth Mountain in California. In December of 2012, while preparing to compete in the grueling Arctic Man Classic, an Alaska race in which snowboarders are towed by a snowmobile at speeds exceeding 80 miles an hour and then ride back downhill, Miller suffered a seizure on the morning of the race and still competed. “He told the officials ‘Don’t start the race without me,’” says Holland, “and sure as s---, he made it back. He had ailments, but he had so much passion and desire that he wasn’t going to let anybody tell him to slow down.”
In My Story, the Ski Channel film, Chilly says, “I’m stoked to be alive. I love snowboarding more than ever, which is pretty sweet after all the things I’ve been through in the last five years.”
In the last year of his life, Chilly had returned to mainstream snowboardcross, in an attempt to join his brother at the Olympics. He won the overall title on Rahlves Banzai Tour, founded by former alpine Olympian Daron Rahlves and took fourth place in the U.S. Grand Prix at the Canyons in Utah.
“He absolutely had a chance to make the Olympic team,” says Holland. “You can tell he was talking to Bode a lot about it, because he would show up at races with new boards and I’d ask him about it and he’d say, ‘Bode said I’ll get some extra speed with this construction.’”
That tinkering is one small element that Bode might appreciate, the endless quest to pull a tenth of a second from the snow on the hill. Late Friday morning, Bode finished sixth in the second of three downhill training runs, a statistic rendered meaningless because he had experimented with a racing strategy and just as quickly dismissed it.
“It was a fail,” he said. “Obviously this was a good time to try that.”
There was a perfectionist’s poetry to his explanation, a reach for something pure -- the same reach his brother made every day.