Bode Miller believes in the thrill of the hill

By Barry Svrluga in Whistler, B.C.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; D01

There is nothing more hard and true about ski racing than those numbers up on the board near the bottom of a race course, numbers that flip faster than the eye can follow. The numbers, down to the hundredth of a second, sort out results, even on a snowy day like Thursday, when the top 31 racers in a training run over a 1.93-mile Olympic downhill course were separated by all of two measly seconds.

Bode Miller would rather not get caught up in the numbers, not in Europe during the World Cup season, and not here on the eve of the Vancouver Games. He has never won an Olympic gold medal, though he has been considered a favorite many times. How might such an accomplishment -- one that could happen as early as in Saturday's downhill -- change his career?

"It depends," he said. "It depends on the manner of accomplishing that goal or of earning the gold medal."

This is an artist speaking, not an athlete, someone who wants to promote the idea that the results -- the numbers -- are secondary to the style. Miller is entering his fourth Olympics, a contrarian at each stop along the way. There are numbers that will follow him for the rest of his career, however long that lasts. He has won two World Cup overall championships, perhaps skiing's most prestigious accomplishment. He took two silver medals at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, part of what allows him to say, "I've accomplished the stuff that I wanted to accomplish in my sporting career."

But far more infamously, Miller went 0 for 5 at the 2006 Turin Games, a performance that was viewed from the outside as a spectacular failure, one in which -- even worse -- Miller came off as a boor who had the audacity to seemingly dismiss the Olympics as frivolous.

"I didn't have a great Olympics," Miller said Wednesday. "But I've had lots of series of races that have gone much worse than that."

Here, then, arrives Miller for what will be, presumably, his final Olympics in perhaps his most interesting iteration. He is 32, now a father. He showed in Thursday's downhill training session, one in which he finished with the eighth-fastest time, that he is a threat in the marquee event that begins the Alpine competition. He has rejoined his old adversaries at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, training with the coaches and teammates he abandoned following Turin, and by most accounts is surviving just fine within that structure. And he is being asked not as much about what lies ahead, and more about what he might leave behind.

"One of the things that's most important to me about skiing and about my legacy -- if I would call it that -- that I leave behind is racing for the pure enjoyment of racing fast and not getting too tangled up in the results or the outcomes," Miller said. "Obviously, you always want to win, but you want to win by skiing a race that you're proud of and that you feel like you really challenged yourself and left it all out there.

"I think that's particularly important in the big events, in moments where you're really tested, where everyone has their expectations on you and everyone has their idea of what you should and shouldn't be doing. At that point it's really important to exercise your right as an individual, and the right that you've earned by training your whole life, and execute the plan that you want to do rather than what you think everyone else tells you to do."

No one would have told Miller to prepare for these Olympics in the manner in which he has, and that is just fine with him. He won the 2008 World Cup overall championship while training and traveling on his own in a private motor home, proving to himself -- and to the outside world -- that he did not need the ski team's support.

But he bailed on the remainder of the 2009 World Cup season after he failed to finish three races at the World Championships in Val d'Isere, France, battling an ankle injury that has continued to hamper him this season. Then, in the late part of the summer -- when he was clearly leaning toward skipping all of 2009-10 -- he met with U.S. men's coach Sasha Rearick about a possible reconciliation. The ski team, by that point, had improved the way it handled its athletes, Miller said, and it became a "no-brainer."

The resulting character is no longer the overwhelming and controversial favorite he was in 2006 -- when he sparred with the media and boasted about staying out late and even skiing drunk -- but a teammate who younger skiers have used as a consultant and a motivator.

"I feel like he wants to win," said Ted Ligety, who upstaged Miller at the 2006 Olympics by winning gold in the combined. "Then, he was in his motor home, so it was hard to get a true gauge on how he was feeling every day. Now we're sharing a bathroom. . . . It's great for us as a team that he's fully with us every race and every day training, because he has that speed and he has that drive."

What to expect here at Whistler, though, is difficult to predict. Miller won a World Cup super combined race -- a discipline that involves slalom and downhill -- last month in Wengen, Switzerland. But his 32nd World Cup win was, to him, just another number.

"Not to be arrogant," he said, "but the super combined is a pretty easy event for me."

His results have been, he said, what he has expected considering he did not train all summer and had to work his way into shape as the season progressed. He has shown flashes of his old potential -- fourth in a downhill at Beaver Creek, Colo., fifth in a Super-G in Val Gardena-Groeden, Italy. He has skipped races to rest his ankle and his mind. And he has created not a bit of a stir off the mountain.

"I'm not expecting him or asking him to go out and win," Rearick said. "I expect him to go out there and put down a run that is inspiring, fun. When he goes out and skis fun he skis great."

That, then, is part of his pursuit here. Last summer, when Miller stepped away from skiing, he watched tape of the World Championships. He was wholly unimpressed. "I didn't see one inspiring run from the guys the whole time," he said.

So he will evaluate his future in that manner. Not by the numbers he puts up here -- two medals, no medals, whatever -- but by how he feels about his skiing. He has been inspired, he said, by athletes such as 20-year-old Austrian Marcel Hirscher, a rising star. Not by his numbers, but by the fact that he is "skiing the way I think skiing should be done."

"I'd hate to be one of the guys who's up there racing with their head fully running the show, tactically making decisions," Miller said, "just looking like they're going to work every day and skiing to just get their result and then come back the next day. . . .

"I'm someone who's won lots of World Cups, and I can tell you the stuff those guys are doing. As long as I can be on that side of the equation, where I'm doing that kind of stuff, then I'll keep racing."

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