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Bode-audacious After tearing up the World Cup circuit, free-spirited Bode Miller could win big--or crash bigger--at Salt Lake City

Feb. 11, 2002
Feb. 11, 2002

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Feb. 11, 2002

Super Bowl XXXVI

Bode-audacious After tearing up the World Cup circuit, free-spirited Bode Miller could win big--or crash bigger--at Salt Lake City

Even at the start, Bode Miller resisted boundaries. Here he was,
barely two years old, coasting downhill on tiny skis between the
legs of his mother, Jo, while she dug a wide wedge and supported
him with her arms. "Let go! Let go!" squawked little Bode,
fighting for his freedom. After two runs his mom relented, turned
her toddler loose and hurtled toward the base of the run, "trying
to get to the bottom before Bode got there and crashed into the
fence," she recalls. This scene would be repeated, in one form or
another, for more than two decades. Bode does things his way, in
life and in skiing. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he crashes.

This is an article from the Feb. 11, 2002 issue Original Layout

Armed with a self-taught, attacking style that confounded the
boyhood coaches who tried to change him, Bode (pronounced
BOH-dee) hopped mountains and trained with a rival team at age
13. It probably cost him a place in the 1990 Junior Olympics.
Five years later he challenged a Carrabassett Valley (Maine)
Academy English teacher's requirements for a senior paper. It
definitely cost him a high school diploma. "People have tried to
get Bode to fit in or to jump through hoops," says Chip Cochrane,
who coached Miller at CVA. "He's not a hoop-jumper."

Yet he never doubted his decisions, and when he wins, he wins
big. In 1996, when Miller was 18, representatives for the ski
manufacturer K2, which was supplying his equipment, initially
advised him not to race in their production model K2 Fours, the
first generation of revolutionary side-cut skis, because they
were made to aid recreational skiers in carving turns. Miller saw
the skis as perfect for his unusual racing style; using them, he
won the Junior Olympics Super G and giant slalom and, despite
falling three times, finished second in the slalom. Shortly
afterward, on the same K2 Fours, he finished third in the slalom
at the nationals and was added to the U.S. ski team.

He has been on the team ever since. It has been a stubborn,
rollicking ride, six years during which Miller, 24, has held to
his technique and his aggression like a pit bull to a chew toy.
"It must be incredibly frustrating to work with me," says Miller.
"Even if a coach has what he thinks is a great point, I usually
don't agree with him, and there's no way to convince me."

Miller flashed moments of greatness during his first five years
on the World Cup circuit, six times winning one run of a two-run
race but never a full race. This season he has exploded, winning
four World Cup races (three in the slalom, one in the GS), the
most by any U.S. male since Phil Mahre won six races two decades
ago. Miller's performances have made him an Olympic medal
favorite in the technical events, and his hell-bent,
swashbuckling style--along with his cuddly name and slacker
cool--have made him an instant legend across Europe. At a low-key
night slalom race on Jan. 17 in Westendorf, Austria, Miller stood
for two hours on a frigid snowpack, signing autographs and posing
for pictures. Three days later, in the ski mecca of Kitzbuhel, he
finished third in a World Cup slalom despite shearing off the
bottom five inches of one of his ski poles at the top of the
first run.

After a December slalom win at Madonna di Campiglio, Alberto
Tomba, five-time Olympic medalist in slalom and GS, told
journalists, "There's no way to beat Bode Miller right now. He's
skiing better than anybody in the world."

More significant, the risk-taking style that Miller developed and
has been defending since he was a teenager--skiing straighter and
faster than any racer in the world, carving earlier in sharp
turns, sitting back on his skis and rescuing himself from myriad
near falls--is being described as the stuff of genius. "He's
creating more speed from his skis than I've seen," says U.S.
teammate Erik Schlopy, with whom Miller shares a winter house in
Austria. The mighty Austrians (the New York Yankees of Alpine
skiing) have taken to watching videos of Miller, trying to unlock
the source of his unorthodox brilliance.

The success and the props give Miller ample opportunity to crow.
Ever the New England contrarian, he instead rips himself. "It's
great that I'm finally doing this," he says, "but I've had this
ability for years. My success rubs it right in my face that I
haven't done it sooner."

Start with nearly 500 acres on the edge of the White Mountain
National Forest near Franconia, N.H. Add a rustic ski lodge,
built in 1946 by Miller's grandfather Jack Kenney. Add another
home, three quarters of a mile from the nearest access road,
nestled in dense pines beside a stream. No electricity. No indoor
plumbing. This is where Samuel Bode Miller was born in the fall
of 1977, the second of four children of Jo Kenney and Woody
Miller, a '60s couple who were headed toward conformity before
Woody dropped out of medical school in Burlington, Vt., in 1974
and moved with Jo to the woods. "At that point in our lives it
was important to live simply," says Jo, 51.

Bode got his name because Jo thought the letter combination was
neat. His older sister is Kyla, 26, who's married with one child
and expecting a second. Bode and Kyla helped name the two younger
kids, piling on name after name until their sister's and
brother's birth certificates were filled with clerk's keystrokes.
(The 18-year-old baby is Nathaniel Kinsman Ever Skan Chelone
Miller.) The family home was lit by kerosene lamps, and the
children were homeschooled until Bode was through third grade.
When snow fell on nearby Cannon Mountain, they went skiing.
Theirs was a lifestyle that encouraged independence. "Bode--and
all my children--were strong-willed from an early age," says Jo.

By the time Bode was four, Jo, who would separate from Woody in
1985 (they divorced last February), was driving him to Cannon,
five miles from the Miller property. The sight of Bode bombing
all over the hill became common. "This tiny guy, just flying,"
says John Ritzo, who skied at Cannon and would play a critical
role, as CVA's headmaster, in Miller's life.

Bode skied oddly as a kid, sitting far back (it's best to stay
centered over the skis), keeping his hands low (they're supposed
to be out in front) and dangling his poles in the snow (rather
than planting them with each turn). The coaches at Cannon ignored
his extraordinary quickness and tried to correct his mechanical
flaws. Bode began training at Bretton Woods, another ski area,
and, because he allegedly missed a gate, was disqualified from a
race by his Cannon coaches, leaving him ineligible for the 1990
Junior Olympics. Miller remains convinced that the coaches DQ'd
him because he ignored them. "They wouldn't even let me train
gates at Cannon unless I changed my technique," Miller recalls.
"I was like, Shut up and let me race. They didn't like that."

In 1991 he came to CVA's attention through an old friendship
between Jo and Ritzo's wife, Patty. Ritzo recalled Bode's talent
and arranged for virtually a full scholarship at CVA, a private
school at the base of the Sugarloaf ski area with an emphasis on
winter sports. At CVA, Miller was joined with Cochrane, a former
U.S. Ski Team downhiller unbound by conventional coaching mores.
"Bode was a tall, scrawny kid, didn't pole-plant, sat backseat on
his skis," says Cochrane, "but he had this incredible sense of
knowing where his feet were and what to do with them. And he was
always thinking about how to get down the mountain faster than
anybody else."

Miller stamped CVA with his personality and his athletic ability.
He was a dominant soccer player and a state tennis champion.
Classmates stood dumbstruck one afternoon as he sailed off a jump
on downhill skis and turned a flying 720. In Miller's senior
year, however, his independence hurt him. All CVA seniors were
required to complete a yearlong research project for English
instructor Barbara Trafton, culminating in a 20-page paper.
Miller turned in a paper on author Toni Morrison and received a
grade of 68, two points short of passing. Trafton offered to let
Miller revise the paper during the summer, but he refused. "It
wasn't a great paper, but I did the work and should have gotten a
passing grade," says Miller. He received an incomplete for the
course and, despite five years of solid grades, only a
"certificate of attendance" at graduation, not a diploma. CVA
administrators have urged Miller to write a paper--any paper--and
get his diploma, but Miller resists. "It's still a sore spot for
me," he says. "If I decide to go to college, I might find another
way to get a high school diploma."

His ski career, though, has hit no such bumps. K2's
hourglass-shaped side-cut skis were the perfect instrument for
Miller's technique. He sounds like Watson and Crick outlining the
double helix of DNA when explaining it. "The transition from one
edge to the other in the turn has always happened earlier for me
than for most people," he says. "That's how I go straighter [and
faster]. When I was young, I'd have this early transition, then
wait for the ski to come ripping into the turn, but because the
ski had no side-cut [to help it turn], I'd fall on my side and
slide into the woods. My compensation was to sit back, lever the
tail and bend the ski. With side-cut skis I didn't have to do
that, and it was ridiculous how much difference it made."

Two years ago Miller switched to Fischer skis and has spent long
hours with the company's technicians refining the side-cut. The
straight line makes him fast and thus dangerous to opponents--and
himself. "You run a direct line, you'll go fast," says 1984 U.S.
Olympic silver medalist Steve Mahre, "but if you make a mistake,
it's going to be more costly." During Miller's early years on the
World Cup circuit, competitors would gather around video monitors
to watch his runs, anticipating spectacular crashes. Sometimes
they still do. "Bode is always racing all-or-nothing," says
Hermann Maier. "If he makes it to the finish, he's hot to win."

U.S. coaches have stressed getting to the finish line. "The
coaches always wanted me to try to finish sixth or 10th and stay
on my feet," says Miller. "I wanted to try to win, even if I
wasn't ready to win and even if that meant falling. Now I'm going
faster than anybody else in the world, and it doesn't matter how
I look."

Miller has dominated in a season he nearly missed. He tore the
ACL in his left knee at the worlds last winter in St. Anton,
Austria. He underwent four surgeries in the spring and summer,
but remarkably Dr. Richard Steadman found it unnecessary to do a
full reconstruction of the ACL and instead performed a "healing
response," creating fractures where the ligament normally
attaches to the bone. Conditioning during rehab has helped make
Miller, grown to 6'2", 210 pounds, more solid overall.

One afternoon this past December, Miller sat eating a
cheeseburger at a Portland, Maine, restaurant. Few things amuse
him more than earnest analysis of his sudden ascent. U.S. coach
Jesse Hunt credits smarter tactics. Steve Mahre says Miller has
changed his style. "I can see that Bode has become more
controlled, quieter on his skis," he says.

Miller, however, shrugs off their words. "It's a little bit
fitness, a little bit equipment, a little bit maturity," he says.
"It's all those things coming together. People feel like there
had to be a big change. There hasn't. This was just a matter of
time."

The Olympics beckon on home soil. They can make him famous or
forgettable in a matter of minutes. "He'll win everything by five
seconds or crash," says Cochrane. It couldn't be any other way.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY LOWECOLOR PHOTO: NATHAN BILOW Cutting edge Side-cut skis have helped the aggressive Miller refine his straight-on style through the slalom's twists and turns.
"It's great that I'm finally doing this, but I've had this
ability for years. My success rubs it right in my face that I
haven't done it sooner."