Bode Miller descended the course in Beaver Creek, Colo., last
Friday in prime position to win a World Cup downhill race for the
first time in his career. From the 19th starting spot Miller, who
has made his mark in the more technical slalom and giant slalom
races, passed the midway interval in the fastest time of the
afternoon. "He's flying," declared the P.A. announcer. "With Bode
on the course it's either feast or...." Within seconds Miller was
lying in the protective netting, his body none the worse for his
fall, but the chance to pick up critical World Cup points lost to
his recklessness. "He was too aggressive, but that's Bode," says
Phil McNichol, the coach of the U.S. men's team. "He takes turns
tighter, straighter, faster than anyone, but that gets him in
trouble. You have to finish races to win the World Cup."
No U.S. skier has taken the overall title since Phil Mahre and
Tamara McKinney won crowns in 1983. Even more prestigious than
Miller's Olympic honors (he took silvers in the combined and the
giant slalom in Salt Lake City) or his medals in giant slalom,
combined and Super G races at the world championships last year
in St. Moritz (two gold and one silver) is the overall World Cup
crown, which is won by points accumulated for places one through
31 in races throughout the season. That title is revered among
skiers as the sacred chalice of consistency, something Miller,
26, has lacked in a career that has seen outstanding performances
and spectacular crashes.
Last season, despite being disqualified or failing to finish in
eight races, Miller led the overall standings until the final
month of the season; he ended up second to Austria's Stephan
Eberharter. Miller began this season by winning a giant slalom in
Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 26, by more than a second and by
breaking a 19-year World Cup drought for U.S. male racers on home
snow, winning a giant slalom in Park City, Utah, on Nov. 22. But
after falling on Friday, Miller missed gates on Saturday and
Sunday, giving him three DNFs for the early season.
Miller's refusal to hold back has earned him the nickname
Bodacious and the reputation of being uncoachable. "I've never
liked fighting with people," he insists, "as long as they don't
challenge what I'm doing." Against convention, Miller dangles his
arms and tosses himself into turns, relying on his instincts.
"Most skiers are taught technique and then get comfortable with
speed," McNichol says. "It's Bode's nature to go fast and then
pick up finer points through self-discovery. When he's right,
it's total domination, and he'll only adapt if he believes it
Miller underwent Lasik surgery in October, improving his vision
from 20/40 to 20/20. Later this week, when the circuit returns to
Europe, he will forgo living in team hotels to stay in a private
trailer for the first time. A friend will be his driver and chef.
Miller is also trying to have his slalom skis redesigned after
recent struggles with equipment from a new sponsor.
U.S. coaches say the Austrians are employing what they call their
A-B (anti-Bode) team, hoping that at least one of their skiers
will outpoint Miller for the season. They have, for instance,
given starts to star Hermann Maier in one of his weaker events,
giant slalom, in place of an Austrian GS specialist, sacrificing
chances to win individual races to help Maier pile up points.
Asked last Saturday if he feared Miller's challenge this season,
Maier, the overall leader through Sunday, smiled and said, "Yes,
but [only] if he stays on his skis."
Miller, who is seventh in the World Cup standings, could become
the first U.S. skier to win the overall title since Phil Mahre
and Tamara McKinney won crowns in 1983. Here are the contenders.
SKIER, AGE, COUNTRY SKINNY
Stephan Eberharter, 34, Austria The two-time defending champ in
the overall, downhill and Super G
Hermann Maier, 31, Austria Fully recovered from a near-fatal
motorcycle accident in August 2001
Lasse Kjus, 32, Norway A two-time overall champ who has won
medals at the last three Olympics
Didier Cuche, 29, Switzerland The best hope for the once-dominant
Swiss, whose team is fading
Daron Rahlves, 30, U.S. The downhill daredevil spent the
off-season racing motocross