Born To Ski Wild With a medal in today's slalom, Bode Miller would become the most decorated American skier at a single Games. Ask him if he cares

February 23, 2002

This morning Bode Miller will stand at the top of a steep, icy
slalom run at the Deer Valley Resort, facing down a minefield of
more than 60 plastic gates, each an opportunity to turn, to
slide, to crash. Each an opportunity to fail at the Olympic
Games. At the bottom of the hill a temporary stadium will rock
with emotional support for Miller, who will be gunning for his
third medal of the Games, which would make him the first U.S.
skier to win that many at a single Olympics. Flags will wave,
his name will be chanted--Bo-dee! Bo-dee!--and a rich new world
will await him at the bottom.

Except Miller would rather not have any of these trappings. For
Bode, it's not about the medals. Not the silvers he won in the
Alpine combined and the giant slalom. It's not about the
celebration that will unfold if he rips through one of his
singularly scorching slaloms and makes the best gate-running
skiers in the world look like plodding amateurs. It is about the
skiing. "Even though these are the Olympics, it's about competing
hard, not giving up--it's about pure racing," he said last week.
"And that's hard to remember sometimes because it's easy to get
motivated by other things."

Go back to Wednesday, Feb. 13, to the men's Alpine combined
competition at Snowbasin, a powder haven shadowed by steel-gray
peaks 40 miles north of Salt Lake City. The combined is an odd
calculation of one downhill and two slalom runs, contested at
these Games in a single day for the first time. A cynic would
suggest that the combined is too long and too strange to be
interesting or significant. A purist would argue that the event
rewards the most versatile skier in the world.

Miller is already the world's fastest slalom skier. His task in
the combined was obvious enough: Ski sensibly yet fast enough in
the downhill so that he could enter the slalom within striking
range of skiers like Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Lasse Kjus of
Norway.

He failed to either ski sensibly or stay close. After running
raggedly for much of the downhill, Miller skied clean through
the tilted, lower section of the course called Offtrack Canyon,
holding his skis against the sidehill while turning right.
Transitioning to turn left through Slingshot, Miller lost his
edges at 60 miles per hour and bounced on his left hip. "It was
a crash. My skis were not touching the ground, and my ass was,"
Miller would say later.

Miller fought to yank his skis back beneath him and his body was
flung toward the outside of the course, where coaches were
gathered. His knees were bent impossibly underneath him until,
at the last possible millisecond, Miller snapped the long,
downhill skis to the left, briefly uncoiled his body, somehow
cleared the next gate and sailed off Buffalo Jump onto the wall
of the 74% slope that leads into the finish. The crowd watching
on a giant television screen at the bottom of the hill gasped as
if they had seen an automobile accident. Miller's reaction was
similar.

"Once I recovered, the entire way to the finish I was thinking,
Ho-lee s---," said Miller a day after the race. "I mean, I do
stuff like that more than most people, recoveries and all that,
but this one. Then I saw the tape. How did I not tear my
meniscus? Or my ACL? How did I not fly into the coaches,
headfirst, at 55 or 60 miles an hour? And they would have had
zero time to react."

The run left him 2.44 seconds behind Aamodt, who led after the
downhill. It was far too much, against too solid an opponent,
for Miller to dream of recovering, even on two slalom runs.
Miller was a little disappointed and a little angry and very
sore and frightened. People die in downhill crashes. He went to
the U.S. team's training trailer at Snowbasin and rode a
stationary bike in his long underwear to dissipate the lactic
acid in his legs and to clear the shock from his nervous system.

Two hours later he attacked the first slalom run but made a
terrible mistake at the top of the steep section and another at
the bottom. He climbed over the bodies of a bunch of downhillers
in the standings, ascending to fifth place. But he gained nothing
on Aamodt.

The final slalom run, contested in fading, late-afternoon light
on a rutted course, was one of the most memorable in Olympic
history. Miller, skiing 11th in the 27-man field, ripped down
the slope in 49.73 seconds, more than a second faster than other
slalom specialists, such as Benjamin Raich (50.91) and Rainer
Schoenfelder (51.31), both from Austria. Aamodt, with a huge
cushion--"I figured 2.44 seconds would be enough," he said
later, laughing at his near miscalculation--won the gold medal
over Miller by .28 of a second, losing the final slalom run by
more than two seconds while winning his record sixth Olympic
Alpine medal. (He now has seven.)

Miller's silver-medal-winning run immediately took a place
alongside Franz Klammer's wild gold medal downhill in 1976 and
Alberto Tomba's thrashing silver medal slalom in 1994, in which
he also skied from the back of the pack. "Bode just dropped the
hammer," said Austria's Kilian Albrecht, who finished eighth.
"When he does that, anything is possible."

The medal machinery immediately swallowed Miller. After a flower
ceremony and a press conference, he was hustled off to the
spartan Huntsville, Utah, bed-and-breakfast room he had shared
with teammate Casey Puckett. Miller packed a small backpack and
hoped it would last him four days. He was driven to the medal
ceremony in Salt Lake City and then made appearances at USA
Houses in Salt Lake and Park City. By the time he wriggled free,
Park City clubs and restaurants were closed. He was driven to
the Grand Summit Hotel at the Canyons Resort, where he slept for
two hours and was then awakened for an appearance on the Today
show.

By noon he sat, bleary-eyed and dumbstruck, on a couch at the
resort. "This is not the way I would celebrate an Olympic medal
if I had a choice," Miller said. "It makes it all feel
anticlimactic."

Yet as he spoke about the final slalom run, Miller perked up.
"That second run is what the Olympics are about," he said. "The
Olympics are about struggling to compete, struggling to be at
your best when it counts. That second run was cool in that way.
It was such a challenge. I got beaten down physically in the
downhill and scared, too. And there was this big adrenaline rush
that just drained me. Then I made mistakes on the first slalom.
It was all such a huge challenge, and that second slalom run, it
was just great, pure skiing.

"When I think about it," said Miller, "I could probably have won
a gold medal if I had skied more cautiously in the downhill and a
little more slowly in the first slalom with no mistakes. But it
wouldn't have been the same."

Eight days later, on a different mountain, Miller again found
the sweet place between ambition and the skier's pure flow when
he took the silver behind Austria's sublime Stephan Eberharter
in the giant slalom. After running first out of the start in the
opening run, Miller was in seventh place, a distant .91 behind
Eberharter but only .17 out of second place. He had the fastest
second run in the field to pass five skiers and finish second.
And at the finish of his run, he sat back on his bindings,
exactly as he had five years earlier when he finished well back
in his first World Cup race. "I think I've come a long way in
five years," he said after the race. And that was as important
as the medal they would hang from his neck.

Miller's Olympic attitude is as unusual as the rest of his life.
He was raised on 500 acres outside Franconia, N.H., in a home
without electricity or indoor plumbing. His parents, Jo and
Woody, were vintage '60s parents who voraciously eschewed
material trappings. Bode began skiing at two and was homeschooled
through the third grade. He skied and lived by feel and fought
authority on issues ranging from ski technique to school term
papers.

Exhibit A: In his senior year at Carrabassett Valley Academy in
Maine, he received a 68 on a senior English term paper and
refused to redo it for a passing grade. As a result, he still
does not have a high school diploma, despite nearly five years of
solid academic work at CVA.

Exhibit B: He has been a member of the U.S. ski team since 1996
and has constantly struggled with coaches' attempts to refine his
aggressive style. Even now, as he prospers, his relationship with
coaches can best be defined as a truce.

In Salt Lake, Miller has chafed at his living arrangements. He
and Puckett shared a room at the Jackson Fork Lodge, nine miles
from the Snowbasin race area, which is one the most remote
venues at these Olympics. "The coaches are into this isolation
thing," Miller said before the combined. "This is the Olympics.
I'd like to experience a few things." In his room was a small
television set with a rabbit-ear antenna to improve reception.
"We got three stations," said Miller. "Two of them were too
fuzzy and snowy to watch, and the other one had stock quotes
running across the bottom and they talked about Enron all week."

On the day before the combined, Miller trained downhill and then
stayed in the finish corral for more than an hour, signing
autographs and posing for pictures, largely to avoid going back
home.

His satisfaction comes by contrary means. If the Today show
can't fully understand his joy, then Cam Shaw-Doran surely can.
Shaw-Doran was a snowboarding and skiing buddy of Miller's back
in New Hampshire who was also raised in a home with an outhouse
and no electricity. In the fall of '97 Shaw-Doran suffered
injuries in an automobile accident that left him paralyzed from
the waist down.

On the day after the combined, Shaw-Doran called Miller's cell
phone, and Miller immediately brightened at hearing his voice.
"Dude, what's up?" Miller shouted. They talked for several
minutes and agreed to talk again later, as a limo took Miller to
the airport for the private-jet flight to Los Angeles.

From there, he would head off to train for four days in Sun
Valley, Idaho, and then return to the madness of these Games,
which desperately yearn to make him a celebrity when all he
wants is to ski fast.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY COVER Bode takes aim at gold today COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY LOWE A child of vintage '60s parents, Miller has grown up to become the world's fastest slalom skier. COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER But for a couple of mistakes, Miller would have two gold medals around his neck instead of a pair of silvers. COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF NBC Bode has held court with Jay Leno (below) and others, but he's more comfortable when his skiing is doing the talking.

"I probably could have won a gold medal if I had skied more
cautiously. But it wouldn't have been the same," says Miller.

He refused to redo a term paper, and as a result he still does
not have a high school diploma.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)