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Back on the Edge

Dec. 11, 2006
Dec. 11, 2006

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Dec. 11, 2006

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Back on the Edge

Nine months after letting down the U.S. team at the Winter Olympics--and appearing not to care--Bode Miller is fit, fast and focused on winning World Cup races

He could be goneby now. Bode Miller could have been embarrassed by his 2006 Olympic medalshutout, humbled by the bilious criticism heaped on him by the media forpartying too much while winning too little (and seeming to care even less) inTurin, and chastened by a set of onerous rules imposed on the U.S. Ski Teamlast summer specifically to address his behavior. He could have slunk back tohis native New Hampshire, the poster child for self-indulgence, never to beseen or heard again. It would have been a logical finish to a skiing careerthat has been as tumultuous as it has been transcendent.

Except that Miller does not abide by conventional logic and will accept no oneelse's terms for his departure. "When I retire," he said last week,"you'll know because one day I just won't come to races anymore."

This is an article from the Dec. 11, 2006 issue Original Layout

That day hasclearly not arrived. Last Friday afternoon, on an icy mountainside above theswank Colorado resort of Beaver Creek, Miller won the Birds of Prey Downhill,centerpiece of the annual U.S. stop of the Alpine World Cup circuit. Attackinga perilous course through light snowfall and shaking off a terrifying nearcollision with a Slovenian coach who lost his footing and slid across thecourse seconds in front of him, Miller won his 22nd career World Cuprace--second among U.S. skiers only to Phil Mahre's 27--by .15 of a second overDidier Cuche of Switzerland.

Miller'sperformance recalled his World Cup dominance of 2003 to '05, mixingonce-in-a-generation rhythm and vision with brazen tactics. "He looks likehe is concentrating on skiing again," said Michael Walchhofer of Austria,silver medalist in the Turin Olympic downhill and fifth in that event at BeaverCreek.

In a broadersense Miller's victory was his first step from the shadows of last season, whena solid performance by the U.S. men's team (a near-record 20 podium finishes byfour skiers) was blighted by a disappointing Olympics (one medal, by Ted Ligetyin the combined) and the ill will engendered by Miller's irreverence and hisvery public carousing in the Olympic ski village.

Yet if it wasBode who infected the team last season, it was Bode who began to cure it lastweek. Rising U.S. racer Steve Nyman was third in the Beaver Creek downhill,putting two American skiers on the podium for the first time since Miller andthe now-retired Daron Rahlves went one-two in last year's Beaver Creek giantslalom. "Boy, our team needed this a lot," said Bill Marolt, CEO of theU.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and Miller's foe in matters of conduct."Sometimes a little controversy isn't all bad; people get on edge andrespond."

Scarcely 24 hourslater Ligety finished third in the giant slalom, the fifth podium of hisascendant career. Meanwhile, 1,400 miles away in frigid Lake Louise, Alberta,U.S. women's racer Lindsey Kildow, 22, last seen picking herself up from ahorrific downhill crash at the Olympics to compete through the pain in fourmore races, won a World Cup downhill, finished second in another and alsoplaced second in a Super G, a three-podium weekend that gave the U.S. sixpodiums in three days, one of the best weekends in ski-team history.

The performancescould not have been more different from the U.S. showing in Turin, where Millerwas credited by the Associated Press with the killing quote, "I got toparty and socialize at an Olympic level."

On the day beforehis Beaver Creek downhill win, Miller told SI that those words weremisinterpreted. This is not the first time he has made such a claim aboutsomething he said, but as always, his explanation is intriguing. "Theresults were a bummer--I felt I could have done better," said Miller."But how many times in my career have I had disappointing results? I'veskied 350 World Cup races [actually 245]. I felt like I put in a good effort inthe races. Outside of that, I had a phenomenal time at the Olympics. My familyand friends were there, and I got to spend time with them in an atmosphere thatwas totally unique, and it was awesome. It was the best two weeks of my life,literally."

It was not thebest two weeks of Marolt's life. "We've got a big constituent group thatfollows us," he said in Beaver Creek. "It's corporate sponsors, it'sprivate donors, it's ski resorts, it's kids and their families. We need to putthe best possible face on the sport." Private donors supply more than 40%of USSA's $24 million budget, and some of them were embarrassed by Miller (andto a lesser degree, by freestyle skier Jeret Peterson, who was removed from theGames after getting involved in a fistfight).

Hence, lastsummer USSA team members were ordered to sign an agreement requiring them tostay in designated team hotels during training and competition, to not consumealcoholic beverages at official team functions, and to not drink alcoholicbeverages in the same establishments as team coaches and staff. There waslittle doubt that the rules were aimed at Miller, who has traveled the Europeancircuit for three years in a motor home and makes no secret of his taste forthe nightlife. The men's ski team at first balked at the rules. Ligety recallshearing team officials define the word integrity as "something like'unwavering adherence'" to team policies. (The actual definition in USSAdocuments is "steadfast, incorruptible.") Ligety's reaction: "Ithought, Oooooh-kay, what is this, Soviet Russia?" Eventually all teammembers signed, but most remain unhappy with what they perceive as the BodeRules.

"It's areaction to one person," says veteran Scott Macartney. "I'm not a bigfan of the policy, but I can't do anything about it if I want to ski."

In truth, therules are largely unenforceable. Phil McNichol, the coach of the men's team,says, "This is the company policy, and I'm here to support the companypolicy," but he also says he won't do bed checks or stalk bars in search ofviolators.

Miller followsthe rules grudgingly, traveling in his RV but sleeping in "crappy hotelbeds," as he calls them. "They think I party in the RV," he says."I've never had a party in there."

There is ateamwide assumption that the rules are designed to mollify offended big-moneydonors. "Those are the same people we were drinking with at USA Houseduring the Olympics," says Ligety.

Miller signed theagreement for the same reason that the others did: He loves to race."Sometimes you have to suck it up," Miller says. There are indicationsthat he has a similar attitude toward his performance this season. Lost in thecriticism of his behavior last season was another issue: Miller was in lousyphysical condition, and his body did not respond when his mind was ready torace. He has trained fiercely for this season's World Cup campaign.

"Bode isfitter than he has been in a long time, maybe ever," says U.S. combinedcoach John McBride, who spent three weeks training one-on-one with Millerduring the summer and fall. "I pushed him hard, and he was very focused. Ithink last year gave him a lot of perspective." Miller has also beenenergized by switching from Atomic skis to Head, his fifth manufacturer in 10years. But there will always be Bode Moments: In Beaver Creek he was leadingboth Thursday's super combined and Saturday's giant slalom by wide marginsafter one run but failed to finish the combined and made a horrific mistake inthe GS. He will never expunge Turin from America's collective memory, but helooks nearly certain to surpass Mahre in World Cup victories, sooner ratherthan later.

Ligety's memoriesof Turin are all good. His upset gold medal in the combined was just the fourthU.S. men's victory in Olympic skiing history, and he threatened in both slalomand giant slalom. It was part of a year in which Ligety leaped from potentiallygood to just plain good. This led to a frantic off-season in which he bought a3,100-square-foot home to share with two friends outside Park City, Utah,signed a lucrative ski contract with Rossignol and started his own company,Shred Optics, among other ventures that will push his income into sevenfigures, a tenfold increase in three years, according to his agent, Ken Sowles."It's been crazy," Ligety said in Beaver Creek. "I was used tohaving my summer to myself, and here I was going everywhere. I'm glad Bode isstill around to take the brunt of the attention."

Ligety'sbreakthrough came a year ago in the technical events of slalom and giantslalom. Now, as Miller did in 2003, Ligety will begin skiing more in the speedevents, downhill and Super G. "The goal is to be a four-event skier, andthe overall [World Cup title] is a goal, too," Ligety says. He might havestarted the year even faster if he hadn't broken a bone in the back of hisright hand by smacking it against a slalom gate while training in Austria inlate October. He whacked it again in his Beaver Creek giant slalom, whilewearing a hilarious handlebar mustache, Sharpie'd on to frostbite-preventingathletic tape, on his face.

This is a year inwhich U.S. skiers might have eagerly ridden their momentum to the Continentrather than dreading the start of a long winter on the road. Uncommonly warmand dry weather across central Europe, however, has disrupted the earlyschedule. "I've never seen it like this," says Günter Hujara, the WorldCup men's chief race director.

Cancellations andrescheduled races (including this weekend's hastily arranged super combined inReiteralm, Austria) have burdened the U.S. team with at least $40,000 in extratravel costs, according to McNichol. But for one weekend, all of that was asforgotten as Turin.

Late in theafternoon following his downhill victory, Miller walked into the lobby of theU.S. team's hotel. First to greet him was Marolt, who extended his right handand gripped Miller's shoulder with his meaty left hand as the skier laughed andaccepted congratulations from his tormentor. It was almost touching.

WINTER RULES
Follow Bode Miller and his teammates in each event of the World Cup atSI.com/more.

Miller agreed to the antipartying rules for onereason: He loves to race. "SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SUCK IT UP," hesays.
TWO PHOTOSPhotograph by Simon Bruty WEEKENDWARRIOR
Miller celebrated his downhill win on Friday (right) and came in 12th in the GSon Saturday (above).
PHOTOAGENCE ZOOM/GETTY IMAGESAIRTRAFFIC
Ski cross is a kind of Roller Derby on--and above--the snow.
PHOTOFRANK GUNN/APMOUNTAIN MOVER
Making up for her own Olympic disappointment, Kildow blazed to victory in theLake Louise downhill.