The dream unfolds in two parts. In the first, Bode Miller at last finds the equipment to match his breathtaking natural gifts and, skiing with a veteran's maturity, takes down some of his sport's most venerable records. In the second part, Miller, weary of the baggage that attends greatness--the obnoxious fans, the endless sponsor obligations, the 24/7 scrutiny of the ski-mad European media--goes underground for four years, then emerges with a new name and begins anew. "I won't even tell anybody who I am," Miller says. "I'll just start over as a nobody and ski for fun." This is his fantasy, and he dismisses it as impossible. ¬∂ Not so the first part, which has suddenly become very real.
Last weekend at Beaver Creek Resort, 120 miles west of Denver in the snow-packed Rockies, Miller extended one of the most successful starts in the 38-year history of the Alpine World Cup circuit. Having won the season-opening giant slalom on the towering glacier in Soelden, Austria, in October, then stunning his peers with victories in the downhill and Super G (speed disciplinesat which Miller's critics once said he would never excel) at Lake Louise, Alberta, on Thanksgiving weekend, Miller won yet another downhill at Beaver Creek and finished second in the Super G.
Miller also crashed in the Beaver Creek slalom and giant slalom, slowing his momentum but not dulling his drive. "The margin for error in slalom and GS is much smaller, and I'm skiing really fast now," he says, "but nothing has changed." With four wins in the first seven World Cup races, Miller is on pace to shatter the season record of 13 victories shared by Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden (1979) and Hermann Maier of Austria (2001); his 480 points lead runner-up Maier by 206. When he took the Super G at Lake Louise, Miller became only the fifth skier to win World Cup races in all five disciplines (box, page 94).
"Bode will dominate now," says veteran Swiss racer Didier Cuche. "He's making everything look so easy, no trouble at all. He's the new Hermann, the new [Alberto] Tomba, the new [Marc] Girardelli, the new [Pirmin] Zurbriggen. In world skiing, for sure now it's Miller time."
In a sense it's also U.S.A. time. Daron Rahlves, two-time winner on the famed Hahnenkamm course in Kitzb√ºhel, Austria, was second to Miller by .16 of a second in last Friday's downhill at Beaver Creek. ("The first time in my career I actually felt fine about finishing second," Rahlves said.) That afternoon Lindsey Kildow, 20, won a downhill at Lake Louise for the first victory of her World Cup career. It was only the second time that U.S. male and female skiers had won downhills on the same day. (Kyle Rasmussen and Picabo Street did it in 1995.)
But all the Americans are playing second fiddle to Miller. Witness veteran U.S. racer Erik Schlopy, who, after finishing a solid sixth in Saturday's giant slalom, wore a baseball cap adorned with a piece of tape bearing the name of Miller's website, www.bodemillerusa.com. "If you can't beat him, join him," said Schlopy.
The latest chapter in Miller's career began last spring, at the conclusion of the World Cup racing season. In three remarkable years Miller, 27, had gone from being a stubborn New Englander who had loads of potential but kept falling in races, to being a double silver medalist at the 2002 Olympics to being last season's World Cup champion in the giant slalom. He was also one of the best slalom skiers in the world, and in 2002-03 he had begun competing weekly in the speed events, seldom threatening but occasionally dropping a shocker, such as his Super G gold medal at the '03 worlds. But Miller felt he could win even more on better skis. "I talked to Bode about it last year," says former U.S. downhiller Chad Fleischer, a teammate of Miller's from 1997 through 2003. "He said, 'If I just get the right stuff, I'll win downhills and Super Gs.' He was sure of it."
Miller had ended his association with Fischer skis, on which he won his Olympic medals, before the 2002-03 season and signed a two-year contract with Rossignol that with bonuses was worth nearly $2 million. But Miller came to feel that Rossignol skis weren't good enough. "[The technicians] worked hard," he says, "but in the end I was really disappointed in the skis in every event but giant slalom." Last April he tested new equipment from four companies: Atomic, Nordica, Rossignol and Salomon. He concluded that Atomic, the Austria-based industry giant that provided skis for nine of the top 15 finishers in last year's overall World Cup, easily had the best equipment. The boots, bindings and skis seemed perfectly married to his hell-bent style. "Atomic is far and away the best four-event ski in the world," Miller says. "That was a no-brainer."
According to ski industry sources, Atomic's contract offer was lower than Rossignol's and Nordica's. Miller signed a two-year deal that could pay up to $1.6 million with bonuses. (He will also earn nearly that amount from outside endorsements.) Money clearly wasn't the basis for the decision. "I've already made more than I know what to do with, enough to take care of my family and never have to work," Miller says, "and I hardly spend any of it."
In many ways Miller the adult is still the child who was raised by counterculture parents in a New Hampshire cabin without plumbing or electricity and who had to trudge through the snow to the outhouse every winter morning. He is still the kid who fought every coach who tried to change his unorthodox style; still the kid who ski races mostly because he loves to. "I don't like the hoopla that goes with it," he said last weekend, while eating lunch in a Beaver Creek restaurant. "I don't like the press conferences, the drug testing. I don't like dads who are completely obsessed with a sports star. I don't like being the monkey in the cage. 'O.K., monkey, jump around this way, now smile. Good monkey.' It's degrading. I love kids. But the rest of it I just feel like the monkey."
"The one thing he would like," says his mother, Jo, "is more space to himself." While Miller might be off the radar of the average NFL fan, he is Peyton Manning-famous on the World Cup circuit and anywhere near a ski hill. Consider Beaver Creek. On Wednesday, the day before his first race, Miller spent two hours signing autographs with Rahlves at an Atomic function, then three hours that night at a meet-and-greet with media members arranged by the pasta company Barilla, another of his sponsors. At one point he stirred sauce for a photo-op (insert chimp noises here). He also drank a beer, which shocked the European journalists in attendance. "Sometimes, when the stress gets to be too much, it helps to blow things out, just get smashed," says Miller. "But the other night I had one beer and I was in bed at 10:30."
Miller's decision to attack history on newer, faster skis involved cutting a deal with himself. "I'm not much of a believer in an afterlife, and I don't think I'm getting reincarnated," he says, "so what it comes down to is, I owe it to myself and to a lot of other people--my coaches, my family, my teammates--to take the athletic side of it as far as I can and learn to just manage the bulls---."
Miller is taking the athletic side to places never visited by any other skier. He has always had extraordinary edge control and carving skills. "Now he's taking [tighter] lines in downhill than any skier has ever attempted," says Fleischer.
"No surprise this year," says Maier, the four-time overall champion whose runner-up finish in last Saturday's giant slalom suggests that he will remain a viable contender for that title. "He's done a good job when he was struggling with equipment. Now it looks easy for him."
U.S. coaches say they saw a change while helping Miller fine-tune his speed style during summer downhill training in Portillo, Chile. But Miller says he hasn't changed a thing except his equipment, and he's "just getting better at the same stuff I've always done."
"Let's say this: He's relaxed now, he's in a better tuck," says U.S. coach Phil McNichol. "His transition out of turns is better. I'd say the change in equipment supported the changes the coaching staff has been trying to get him to make. Bode will debate that."
He'll also continue to challenge the U.S. coaches on how frequently he races. They want him to rest more; he wants to set his own schedule, which is usually exhausting. His crashes at Beaver Creek suggest that he might find it difficult to maintain his technical edge while trying to win speed events. "Maybe I'll train a little more in slalom and GS," he says. Media and public scrutiny will intensify in Europe, and Miller will try to escape it again by living--as he did last year--in a 30-foot motor home piloted by his childhood friend Jake Serino. (Two other longtime friends, Cam Shaw-Doran and Miller's cousin Chance Stith, share his New Hampshire house. Miller is single, with no girlfriend. "Every girl I meet who's good-looking or cute reads PEOPLE magazine like it's going out of style and is totally absorbed in celebrities," says Miller.)
He expects great things from the season. "I will probably win the overall," he says, "and probably win other globes [event trophies] too--if I don't get hurt. Every day I go out there I probably should be considered the favorite. There's no limit, really." He will ski at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, and then retire. "Unless some young kids come along," he says, "to help shoulder the bulls---."
Until then he will look for more than trophies and cash. Last Friday, as he hit the downhill finish corral and threw a huge spray of fine snow into the blue sky, he windmilled his arms long before he saw that he had moved into first place. "I felt phenomenal, regardless of the time," he explained later. It was "a celebration of great skiing."
It's Not All Downhill
By winning the downhill and Super G at Lake Louise, Alberta, on Thanksgiving weekend, Bode Miller became only the fifth skier ever to win World Cup races in all five disciplines. Here are the Fab Five with their win totals in each event.
KJETIL-ANDRÉ AAMODT NORWAY YEAR ACHIEVED: 2000
CAREER VICTORIES: slalom (1), giant slalom (6), Super G (5), downhill (1), combined (8)
Still active at 33, he also has seven Olympic medals, including three golds
MARC GIRARDELLI LUXEMBOURG YEAR ACHIEVED: 1989
CAREER VICTORIES: slalom (16), giant slalom (7), Super G (9), downhill (3), combined (11)
His 46 wins are tops in this group; the only man to win every discipline in one season
GUNTHER MADER AUSTRIA YEAR ACHIEVED: 1996
CAREER VICTORIES: slalom (1), giant slalom (2), Super G (6), downhill (1), combined (4)
Countryman Hermann Maier has 33 more wins than Mader's 14, but none in slalom
PIRMIN ZURBRIGGEN SWITZERLAND YEAR ACHIEVED: 1985
CAREER VICTORIES: slalom (2), giant slalom (7), Super G (10), downhill (10), combined (11)
The only skier among the five who has more downhill victories than slalom wins
BODE MILLER U.S. YEAR ACHIEVED: 2004
CAREER VICTORIES: slalom (4), giant slalom (7), Super G (1), downhill (2), combined (2)
With 16 victories, he needs 12 more to surpass Phil Mahre as the alltime U.S. leader