Way Off Course

Except for a gold in the men's combined, nothing has gone right for the U.S. And there has been no bigger flop than Bode Miller
February 27, 2006

"What itcomes 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 ski racing as far as Ican."

--Bode Miller,December 2004

"Measuringsuccess with a medal count is pretty f----- up."

--Bode Miller,June 2005

Someday perhapsU.S. skier Bode Miller will reconcile the gap in logic between those twostatements, and then just maybe he will regret what took place in the mountainswest of Turin during the first 10 days of the 2006 Olympic Games. Asurpassingly gifted athlete in the prime of his career, Miller skied fourraces--with the slalom still to come this Saturday--on the grandest stage inhis sport and fared no better than fifth place. Worse yet, he seemed not tocare. "I don't get disappointed," he said midway through his Olympicmedal shutout. After a tie for sixth place in the giant slalom on Monday,Miller sat alone in his RV counting the days until nobody cared about himanymore.

Miller, 28, couldlearn from Norway's Kjetil André Aamodt, 34, who won the Super G last Saturday,establishing Olympic career records for men's Alpine medals (eight) and golds(four). "It's a good life to be an Alpine skier," Aamodt said,explaining his passion and longevity. Or from Austria's Michaela Dorfmeister,32, who wept in the snow following victories in the women's downhill and SuperG, capping a brilliant 15-year career with her first Olympic gold medals. Orperhaps from France's Carole Montillet-Carles, 32, the 2002 gold medalist inthe women's downhill, who fell hard on her goggles in a downhill training crashon Feb. 13 yet cherished the Games so deeply that she competed two days laterwith a face so swollen that her eyelids had to be taped open. "I could nothave stayed in my room and watched the race," she said.

Miller could eventake something from 21-year-old U.S. teammate Ted Ligety, who won the men'scombined on Valentine's Day. "Gold medal," Ligety would say that night,shaking his head, humbled. "Pretty amazing, for sure."

Ligety, who willbe among the favorites in the slalom, was the only medalist for the U.S. teamthrough seven of the 10 Alpine events, far short of the eight-medal goal thatski team officials established long before the Games. As three-event washoutDaron Rahlves, one of the most accomplished U.S. World Cup racers in history,said, "This sucks. Definitely a poor performance."

Former OlympianChad Fleischer, a member of the U.S. Ski Team from 1992 to 2002, says that thepoor showing by the Americans, Miller and Rahlves in particular, will havelong-term ramifications. "Bode and Daron were marketed and hyped as theDream Team," says Fleischer. "There was money and marketing behindthem, and now it's just imploded--and that's a disaster for the U.S. Ski Team.There's sponsorship money at stake, and I guarantee you that fingers are goingto be pointed, at the athletes who didn't perform or at the coaches or theleadership. But they will be pointed."

The U.S. women'sfortunes suffered a blow when Lindsey Kildow (a solid medal contender in threeof her five events) was injured in a nasty crash during downhill training onFeb. 13. Kildow, 21, continued to race despite a painful bruise in her leftgluteal muscle. Her best finish through three events was a seventh place inMonday's Super G. Julia Mancuso, 21, has also come up short, with a seventh inthe downhill and an 11th in the Super G. (Both have the slalom and giant slalomremaining.)

Still, there wasno greater washout than Miller's, which seemed inconceivable a year ago, whenhe won world championships in the downhill and the Super G and took the WorldCup overall title. "I'm disappointed in Bode," said five-time OlympianMarco Büchel of Liechtenstein. "Many people expected more."

The first fourevents of Miller's Olympics were the nadir of a long slide marked by too littlebase training in the summer, too much controversy in the fall and too littlerhythm throughout a World Cup season in which he won only one of 25 racesleading up to Turin. In the villages near the Alpine venues in Sestriere,Miller frequently was seen drinking in bars and restaurants. How much thenightlife affected his already tenuous form, perhaps even he can't guess.

"If you askme if Bode has wasted his talent, my answer would be, 'Oui,'" says LucAlphand, 40, a retired French skier who won 12 races in his World Cup career."He has maybe the most talent of any skier in history. He goes out atnight, maybe every night, and that works sometimes, but maybe it doesn't workso much for Bode anymore."

Fleischer adds,"Bode has been mismanaged. The organization has let him get bigger than thesport. Would that happen with a quarterback in the NFL?"

At the Olympics,Miller teased fans with his performances. After finishing fifth in thedownhill, he led the combined through the downhill portion but was disqualifiedfor straddling a gate in the first of two slalom runs. Next he skied fast lastSaturday at the top of the Super G course but straddled yet another gate (veryrare in the Super G and always the result of taking too tight a line). Yet evenin dropping out of the race, he displayed his surreal talent. Miller wasknocked sideways, and his left leg was thrown behind him. But he rightedhimself and glided down the mountain on just one ski, before calmly bringingthe left ski in place and stopping. ("Who could do that?" says Alphand."Only Bode.") Then came his sixth in the giant slalom.

Miller's lastshot for a medal comes in the slalom, an event in which he once excelled but inwhich he has completed only two of seven races this year, without a podiumfinish. In addition, Ligety will be waiting for him, and Ligety is growing upfast.

After the pressconference that followed his stunning victory in the combined, Ligety climbedinto a minivan, coughed loudly and shook his head. He had won despite the onsetof a cold, which had cost him a night's sleep, and a mediocre downhill run,which had left him in 32nd place and forced him to make two scorching slalomruns. The police escort leading Ligety's ride revved up its siren and turned onits lights. But before pulling out, the young Italian driving the minivanturned to Ligety and handed him an Olympic program and a pen. "Pleasewrite," he said. "You are the best." Ligety signed his name whilesmiling and shaking his head as if living somebody else's dream.

Three years agoLigety graduated from the Winter Sports School in his hometown of Park City,Utah. A child of snow-loving parents transplanted to the Wasatch Mountains,Ligety had been skiing since the age of two and had become an accomplishedracer, but he had not been picked for the U.S. Ski Team. He was nearly 19 andat a crossroads.

"As much aswe knew how badly he wanted to make the ski team, it seemed like he wouldprobably go to college instead," says Ligety's father, Bill.

In the spring of2003, however, after Ted skied well in a European training camp, he was namedto the U.S. development team. He rose quickly, from the "D" team to theWorld Cup squad last year to a top seven seed in slalom this year. And inSestriere he became the youngest U.S. male to win an Alpine skiing gold medal."If I hadn't made the ski team at the last minute, I'd probably be incollege on a skiing scholarship," Ligety said, pausing to look out thewindow of the van at the narrow streets of Sestriere. "Now this."

There is a lot ofMiller in Ligety. He ascended swiftly because he skied fast--stubbornly, likeMiller, refusing to take conservative lines. "He would go days withoutfinishing a slalom run in training," says U.S. coach Phil McNichol."But he would not compromise." Ligety has become more polished withoutsacrificing speed, implementing small changes such as more precise pole plants.Like Miller, he will eventually ski the speed events, the downhill and theSuper G, developing into a World Cup overall contender.

On the night hewon his first Olympic medal, however, Ligety was simply sick, tired anddumbstruck by the enormity of his accomplishment. The van dropped him outsidethe Olympic Village security gate, and Italian police parted to allow hispassage. Ligety smiled, innocently awed. And there the Miller resemblanceends.

SI.COM

More skiing news and analysis from Tim Layden atSI.com/olympics.

Ligety has become more polished without sacrificingspeed, implementing small changes such as more precise pole plants.

PHOTOPhotograph by Carl YarbroughUPS AND DOWNS While Aamodt made Alpine history (right), Miller's highlight was an acrobatic move in a failed Super G run. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY [Seecaption above.] PHOTOCARL YARBROUGHAHEAD OF HIS TIME Ligety, 21, became the youngest U.S. male to win Alpine Olympic gold. ILLUSTRATION
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)