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It's All Downhill for Bode

Feb. 14, 2005
Feb. 14, 2005

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Feb. 14, 2005

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It's All Downhill for Bode

Though he didn't have as much fun flying on two skis as he did on one, incomparable Bode Miller led a historic one-two U.S. finish at the world championships

Bode Miller spread his arms wide and then raised them skyward, accepting adulation and smiling like a man living a boy's dream. Last Saturday evening an ancient cobblestone square in the Italian ski town of Bormio was bathed in spotlights and overrun with spectators, who deliriously crammed between buildings to watch the medal ceremony for the men's downhill race at the Alpine World Ski Championships. Many chanted the familiar Bo-dee! Bo-dee! Bo-dee! Miller's teammate, Daron Rahlves, stood on the second-place platform and at the head of the crowd, U.S. speed coach John McBride wrapped himself in an American flag as if it were a warm blanket. A gold medal hung from Miller's neck, and the ski racing world lay at his feet.

This is an article from the Feb. 14, 2005 issue Original Layout

Seven hours earlier the 27-year-old Miller had crushed the best ski racers in the world on Bormio's Stelvio downhill course, a gnarly, twisting beast that begins high above the timber line and ends on a steep hillside overlooking the gentle Frodolfo river that divides the center of Bormio. "Another stellar performance for the big man," said British downhiller Finlay Mickel, who finished 11th. "The legend grows."

And grows. And grows. And grows. Miller's downhill medal was his second gold at this year's worlds (he won the Super G on Jan. 29), the first world championship downhill gold for a U.S. male and the first gold for an American male in any championship downhill since Tommy Moe won a surprise Olympic gold in 1994. Rahlves's silver medal--he was a distant .44 of a second back, and bronze medalist Michael Walchhofer of Austria was .43 behind Rahlves--gave the U.S. its first one-two finish in any Olympic or world championship downhill. "One-two in a world championship downhill is an awesome achievement," said Miller. "Never mind me, personally."

Let's mind him just the same. His downhill gold came at the end of a remarkable three days during which Miller displayed all the talent, joy and contrarian's creativity that come with being Bode.

On Thursday morning, in the downhill portion of the three-run downhill-slalom- combined event, Miller lost his left ski 15 seconds into the run. Then, to the delight of the crowd watching on a big screen at the bottom of the hill, he skied for roughly 90 seconds--over more than a mile of brutal terrain--on one seven-foot-long downhill ski made for speed, not for turning or balance. "There aren't many skiers in the world who could do what he did today," said former U.S. Ski Team coach Bob Beattie.

"I could do it," said Norwegian racer Aksel Lund Svindal, "but not as easy as he did."

Technically, the one-ski act was pointless. Miller said he was hoping to stay upright through the finish (he fell on his butt roughly 45 seconds short) so that he could ski the combined slaloms later in the day, but he was disqualified as soon as he passed a gate without two skis. Artistically, however, the show was a hit. International Ski Federation (FIS) men's World Cup race director Gunter Hujara did not wave Miller off the course and would not have fined him for finishing, because, he said, "this little show ... was a good thing."

Miller was inundated with phone messages and e-mails. "One coach on the East Coast said, 'Bode, I'm having all my racers go up and ski on one ski this week, hoping that someday they can be just like you,'" Miller said, laughing. "I'm like, 'Guys, I DNF'd the race!'"

Miller has always relished the thrill of the moment. He lives for the rush of skiing expertly over simply winning medals, the fun of a long night drinking beers over the safety of a clear head in the morning. Skiing on one ski was no different. "You have to enjoy skiing," Miller said two days later, standing in a frozen field outside the RV that he calls home during the long, European portion of the World Cup season. "It was pretty damn fun to ski a tough downhill course on one ski, regardless of the results. It was just fun."

On Friday, the last day of official training for the downhill, Miller was again working outside the box. FIS rules dictate that the starting order for the race be determined by inverting the results of the last day of training; the fastest qualifier starts 30th, the slowest among the first 30 qualifiers starts first. The purpose is to create race suspense by having the fastest racers start late. (Qualifiers out of the top 30 start from positions 31 and higher.)

Some skiers, however, manipulate the system by slowing near the finish in hopes of starting earlier. Miller wanted to start the Bormio downhill as early as possible. "For the early starters the visibility is bad, but the snow conditions are perfect," Miller said. "Later, the visibility is better, but the snow is chopped up. I'm so high on the edges of my skis that I pay a higher price in bad snow, but I see pretty well in bad light."

In a bid for a slow qualifying time, which would give him an early start, Miller chose to stand in the start house, activate the timing wand with his pole and count one thousand one, one thousand two before heading down the hill, in effect adding two seconds to his time. The result was a 28th-place finish in training that left him starting at a near-perfect No. 3. Had he been slightly slower, he would have slipped to a deadly No. 31 start or worse. "I've been messing around with opening the wand for a while," Miller said. "It never worked as perfectly as it did here. I was right on the edge. That was as big a factor as anything I did in the race."

What he did in the race was carve a hard, fast line on clean snow, but he so badly burned out his legs that he staggered through the final three turns on memory, finishing in 1:56.22. "I didn't think the time would hold up," Miller said. "I figured somebody would have a solid run and knock me down."

Only Rahlves came within a half second. One week earlier, still sore from a horrible Jan. 11 crash in a giant slalom race in Adelboden, Switzerland, and uncomfortable skiing on the soft Bormio snow (he is better on hard, icy snow), Rahlves finished a disappointing 10th in the world championship Super G, the event that he won in 2001. He went back to hiscustom-made bus and watched surfing videos--"A good way to get in the flow," he said--and stopped taking Mobic, the Vioxx-like painkiller he needed for "internal trauma" in his lower left leg.

On Saturday, Rahlves made only small mistakes on a jump early in the run and on a series of turns in the middle. Like Miller, he was subdued in the finish corral, until each of the five Austrians who followed--including the fading Hermann Maier, who finished 17th--were at the bottom. Then Miller and Rahlves sprayed each other with champagne. For Rahlves, 21, there was only a small element of the bittersweet, much like when he finished second behind Miller by .16 of a second in a World Cup downhill on Dec. 3 at Beaver Creek, Colo. "It's no problem," Rahlves said. "This is all cool."

Cooler than it turned out for Lindsey Kildow, 20, who arrived at the world championships as the breakout star of the U.S. women's team with a World Cup downhill victory in December and 10 top 10 finishes. "I want to medal here, go to the Olympics, then try for the overall [World Cup]," Kildow said before the worlds began. She finished a disappointing ninth in the first weekend's Super G but then skied terrifically in the combined and the downhill, only to finish fourth in each, missing two bronze medals by a total of less than half a second. She was scheduled to ski the giant slalom on Tuesday.

Over the first nine days in Bormio, Kildow candidly admitted being overwhelmed by her sudden place in the spotlight, but on Sunday she vowed through tears to train harder and be more prepared for the Olympics, 12 months away. "This race is going to be forever in my mind," Kildow said after the downhill. "I guess maybe my time is next year."

Miller doesn't guess. He knows. He will race the giant slalom and slalom this week in Bormio, then try to win the World Cup overall title--all en route to potentially becoming the U.S. Olympic face of 2006, the Michael Phelps of the Winter Games in Turin. "It'll feel big, I know that," Miller said on Saturday, walking near the finish stadium. As if on cue, a blast of wind stiffened a huge promotional banner. On it were four letters: bode. ■

Downhill Wonders

Bode Miller's victory in the downhill last week was only the fifth in that event by a U.S. skier in world championship or Olympic competition. Here are the other four Americans to accomplish the feat.

NAME YEAR EVENT

Bill Johnson 1984 Sarajevo Olympics

Tommy Moe 1994 Lillehammer Olympics

Picabo Street 1996 Worlds (Spain)

Hilary Lindh 1997 Worlds (Italy)

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Simon BrutyBOTTOMS UP After the downhill Miller (3, and above on left) and Rahlves were the toast of Bormio. COLOR PHOTOTHOMAS KIENZLE/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTOMIRKO GUARIELLO/EPAWIPEOUT After losing her balance in a training run, up-and-comer Kildow just missed medals in the combined and downhill.