Miller's Mountain of Issues Makes for an Uphill Battle
Thursday, December 1, 2005
BEAVER CREEK, Colo., Nov. 30 -- If you want to experience the unbridled joy that courses through Bode Miller's 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame, you would have to figure out how to ride alongside him as he hurls himself down the icy face of a mountain at 85 mph, chasing that elusive ski run of perfection. Otherwise, you are left to take it on faith that Miller, at 28, finds anything to enjoy about life as the world's best alpine skier.
Miller catapulted to fame by winning two silver medals at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Last spring he became the first American in 22 years to win the World Cup overall title. But with the 2006 Games 10 weeks away, Miller flatly concedes he doesn't have the motivation he once had for competitive skiing.
Sure, the rush of a great run thrills as much as ever. But in Miller's mind, that thrill is treacherously close to being quashed by the obligations and expectations that come with being the world's best. And it's getting worse, he says: the reporters with their monotonous questions; the sponsors with their demands for personal appearances; the fans who clamor for autographs and constantly tell him how great he is; and, not least of all, the power brokers of international skiing who are getting rich off the talents of athletes without a voice.
"It was never supposed to be about making money or advertising," Miller said this week during a news conference here, where the U.S. ski team is preparing for the Birds of Prey World Cup races. "It was about experiencing challenging situations, and building camaraderie and building people's personalities and developing into the kind of people we'd all like to be."
Miller enumerates the hassles, from pre-race interviews to post-race drug tests.
"That stuff sounds small, but it's not why I signed on to the sport," says Miller, sporting a Nike shirt and Nike jacket, with a Barilla cap (another of his sponsors) placed in front of his microphone for maximum exposure. "I wanted to ski race, and I wanted to do the other things that were important to me. Definitely at some point, you stop doing things that you want to do because there's too many things that you have to do."
Miller's rants have become a staple of U.S. skiing, to the point that officials cringe when a microphone is pointed his way. "Shut up and ski" is essentially what they'd like to tell him. But Miller holds the leverage in what he characterizes as a battle of ethics against the sport because he remains, without doubt, the United States' best hope of winning alpine gold at the 2006 Games and, in turn, revitalizing interest in skiing at home while bolstering the country's lightly regarded reputation in the discipline abroad.
In short, the U.S. Olympic Committee, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, Nike and Barilla are banking on the hope that Miller becomes the Michael Phelps of the 2006 Games, with the potential to win five alpine medals. For now, they're just grateful Miller has conceded to compete in Turin after refusing to commit until the last minute because of his ambivalence about the manic chase for medals and what he views as the demise of Olympic ideals.
It was hardly Miller's only controversial stance this year. Disillusioned by the profiteering in professional skiing, he has discussed launching a rival tour. In October he raised the hackles of the International Olympic Committee by arguing that anti-doping rules should be liberalized because they don't protect athletes or ensure fair competition.
Meantime on the slopes, his Olympic preparations have gotten off to an inauspicious start. At last week's World Cup stop at Lake Louise, Alberta, Miller finished 22nd in the downhill and jumped a fence to dodge waiting reporters. In the next day's super-G he finished 18th. But don't think for a minute that his confidence took a hit. Miller appears to have not a shred of doubt about his ability. It's what's inside -- or more precisely, what's lacking inside -- that troubles him.
"My motivation isn't where it could be," Miller said. "I still have the elements that are required."
Reared in a cabin in the New Hampshire woods without running water or electricity, Miller has never developed a taste for convention or norms. As a world-class athlete, his willfulness cuts both ways. His go-for-broke style is what makes him a dazzling skier, determined to win or crash rather than chart a prudent line down a mountain. But it has also prevented him, critics say, from amassing as many medals as he might have.
Miller's approach has earned him a fanatic following in Europe, where he's revered as the gunslinging John Wayne of the slopes. U.S. coaches have all but given up on efforts to mold him, whether that's fiddling with his technique, reining in his late-night partying or persuading him to taper his schedule with an eye toward peak performance.
Beaver Creek's races will mark Miller's 117th consecutive start, making him skiing's version of Cal Ripken. He'll compete in all four events: Thursday's super-G, Friday's downhill, Saturday's giant slalom and Sunday's slalom.
"The last couple years I've been pretty fortunate about injuries and getting sick," Miller says. "The idea is to race if I'm feeling healthy and not tired and the motivation's there. It's a pretty narrow margin that I'm dealing with right now -- more narrow than it has been ever before in my career."