Sidelined by knee surgery and largely out of the spotlight for 18 months, Bode Miller was no less brash on the eve of his return to competition this fall. Asked his expectations as he girded for a run at his fifth Winter Olympics, the 36-year-old Miller said: “The plan is to kick [butt].”
In his three World Cup races since that bold declaration, though, Miller hasn’t even been a factor, finishing no better than 16th in the giant slalom at Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27, and the downhill and Super-G at Canada’s Lake Louise this past weekend.
But if ever there were a skier who demands attention regardless of how calamitous his previous performance, it is Miller, a preternaturally gifted athlete whose competitive DNA defies convention and common sense.
Win, crash or finish hopelessly in arrears, Miller is thrilling to watch — whether hurtling full-tilt down an icy course on a second giant-slalom run to vault from seventh to a silver medal, as he did at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics; or racing on one leg, as he did at Bormio, Italy, in 2005 upon losing a ski 16 seconds into the combined until gravity sent him into a slide.
At the same time, Miller can be difficult to cheer, as many found during the 2006 Turin Olympics, where he completed just two of his five events, failed to win a single medal yet declared his Games a success because he had partied “at an Olympic level.” As a consequence the United States’ most decorated Olympic skier is more beloved in Europe than at home.
Eight years later, he’s seeking a spot on the Sochi-bound U.S. ski team not to win hearts or medals — indifferent to the spoils of his triumphs, he recently tweeted a photograph of a batch of chicken wings marinating in one of his trophies — but because he believes he can still be competitive despite a surgically repaired left knee.
“I’ve made plenty of mistakes; I’ve done tons of stupid things. I’ve had plenty of awful races, and I’ve had a bunch of really amazing races,” Miller said during an interview with U.S. Olympic reporters this fall. “I wouldn’t change anything.”
Reared in a New Hampshire cabin without electricity or running water, Miller started skiing competitively at age 11, made his World Cup debut at 20 and long ago passed the point at which most professional skiers would have retired. He has won two overall World Cup championships (in 2005 and 2008), 33 World Cup races and five Olympic medals (two silvers at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and a gold, silver and bronze at the 2010 Vancouver Games).
And for a nearly four-year stretch, he held the record for most consecutive World Cup starts (136) — a testament to his versatility, competing in all five disciplines, and all the more impressive given the unchained fury with which he attacks his races.
But after undergoing microsurgery on his left knee in spring 2012, Miller announced he would skip the 2013 World Cup season to fully heal in time for one final Olympics before retiring.
In many respects, he has returned a changed man: leaner most notably, having shed 20 pounds to get down to his current 205.
It’s a tradeoff, concedes Forest Carey, head coach of the U.S. Alpine Multi-team, who has worked with Miller for more than 20 years. Carrying less weight eases the pounding on Miller’s knees, but it stands to undercut his performance in the downhill and super-G, skiing’s “speed disciplines,” given basic physics. A boulder tumbles down a mountain much faster than a rock, after all.
Miller also returns as a family man, having wed professional beach volleyball player Morgan Beck, 26, in October 2012, a California graduate he calls his ideal counterpart. That’s not to say that his personal life is anyone’s version of paradise.
In January, Beck announced she had miscarried. The next month, a woman Miller met through a high-end dating service, former U.S. Marine and firefighter Sara McKenna, gave birth to a son he fathered. The parents are now embroiled in a bitter custody battle, feuding over the infant’s name (McKenna calls him Sam, having given him Miller’s name, “Samuel Bode;” Miller and his bride call him Nate, in memory of the skier’s younger brother, Nathanial Chelone, who died in April of an apparent seizure at age 29) and whether he should live with McKenna in New York, where she attends Columbia, or with the Millers in Orange County, Calif. Miller is also seeking custody of a 5-year-old daughter, Dacey, from a previous relationship.
Nonetheless, Miller projects the image of a man at peace with his decisions and an athlete who feels he has nothing left to prove.
“It’s what I love to do, and I’m good at it,” Miller said, asked what drives him. “It’s a perishable, being a ski-racer. Until you’re rotten and shriveled up, you keep going. I’m pretty shriveled up, but I’m not all the way rotten. At least not yet.”
But after three races, it’s far from clear whether Miller’s best, at 36, is good enough.
“We’re still in a holding pattern,” said NBC skiing analyst Steve Porino, a former U.S. Ski Team member, when asked to assess Miller’s World Cup results so far this fall.
Under a strictly clinical analysis, Porino says, he would give Miller no shot at winning a slalom or giant slalom race again, given the dominance of 29-year-old U.S. skiing star Ted Ligety, the four-time reigning World Cup giant slalom champion. But Porino has seen enough of Miller’s feats not to count him out.
“Bode will forever suspend my disbelief,” Porino said. “He has come from zero to hero so often it gives you whiplash.”
In Porino’s view, all things are possible in Sochi.
“In the face of an easy win, he’ll go for the run of a lifetime. He wants to dazzle,” said Porino, unabashed in his admiration of Miller’s go-for-broke tactics. “At the same time, quite honestly, if Bode is skiing really poorly and can’t get it together, I could see him retiring before the Olympics. I don’t think he wants to go to the Olympics to participate in the parade.”
Over the course of his 16 years on the World Cup circuit, multiple factors have set Miller apart.
Durability is one, Carey says. Innate athleticism is another, enabling him to quickly regain his balance when a turn goes awry and recover from the crashes that come with such high-risk tactics. And though Miller thrives on speed, he tends to idle on an even keel mentally, joking that it would take a tranquilizer-dart to make him any mellower.
Said Carey: “Ski racing is tough. One guy wins out of 80 guys. That’s a lot of disappointment. He doesn’t get too high when he wins or too low when he DNFs [does not finish] six races in a row. That steadiness has been an attribute.”
But at this stage of Miller’s career, those attributes may not be enough to add to his Olympic résumé. Assuming he makes it to the starting gate in Sochi, it’s a safe bet he’ll make it interesting.
“If you ask his competitors, every one of those guys will not turn away until Bode has finished,” Porino said. “Even those guys are a little afraid that Bode can do the impossible.”