The Great Hippie Hope

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Ski racer Bode Miller is not a product of

any

"system" and most definitely not the U.S. Ski Team system. Decidedly counterculture in attitude and background, Miller is pierced, scruffy-faced and, for much of his life, shoeless. He views the world through eyes that want to trust, but don't quite dare. Coaches are on his list of things he trusts least.

He lives in the tiny hamlet of Franconia, in the shadow of Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire's state-run ski area. He lounges, half-naked, amid quilts, ski boots, books and jigsaw puzzles in a remote, comfortably cluttered, unpretentious house he shares with his mother, Jo, and a 15-year old brother. Two older sisters have moved out.

A pretty Sarah Letourneau, Miller's regular companion (they've been buddies since grade school, nothing more) looks on, cautiously watchful.

These digs are luxurious compared to what he's known. He confirms the growing legend: He used to live farther back in northern Appalachia, a mile from the nearest road, with no electricity and no plumbing. Yes, he had to walk 500 yards to the outhouse in the middle of the night when it was 20-below, then chip ice from the privy seat...wearing nothing but Sorrels. He was home-schooled until the third grade.

"I spent a lot of time in the woods by myself, checking stuff out," offers Bode. "I like to ski alone, ride the lift by myself and think about stuff. Skiing is fun when you don't have to think about it. Just cruise and relax. Coaches always make you think about skiing too much."

Experiments with skiing began for Miller at age 3, on the hill just below the backwoods cabin. He got into trouble, he says, for going too straight. After his mom moved the family to Franconia in the mid-Eighties, Bode graduated to the slopes at Cannon, where he spent part of every winter day. Lift attendants yelled at him one minute for skiing into the lift mazes too fast and next rewarded him with candy and gum.

His parents were in no position to underwrite a ski-racing career, but he had three uncles who were serious racers and a grandmother, Peggy Taylor, who had been an FIS racer in the Forties. Taylor and Bode's uncle, Mike Kenney, have encouraged Bode and schlepped him to local races, yet nobody in his family pushed him then-or now. Looking back, Bode laughs. "I thought I was a good skier," recalls Bode, "until I started to race. All I could do was sit in the back seat and crash."

He outgrew a disintegrating race program at Cannon, and, after being invited to a race camp at Carrabassett Valley Academy near Sugarloaf, Maine, he was persuaded to attend the academy on a partial scholarship. Resisting the structure and the 24-hour surveillance at CVA also got Miller in trouble. Jo recounts one incident in which Bode had a run-in with an English teacher for wearing sandals to a formal dinner. Sounds insignificant, but when it came time for that teacher to grade Bode, she didn't forget his defiance. "Bode was a 14 year old who thought he knew how to get away with anything," recalls Jo. "He's had a strong sense of who he is from an early age. He's never depended on other people. He goes for it on his own."

"I never took coaching very well," agrees Miller. "I'm super-stubborn. Coaches help me by setting practice courses and getting me into races. I never go to organized USST functions. Ski team kids become too dependent on coaches." He backhandedly acknowledges respect for U.S. Coach Martin Anderson, a Norwegian who has worked with top European racers. "He's a blockhead like me. He's smart and stubborn like me. Nothing I do shocks him. He doesn't make big issues out of things. He appreciates that I work hard and have a total commitment to skiing. But the goals I set are my own goals, no one else's."

Bode Miller's racing career was undistinguished until March of 1995 when he suddenly burst onto the elite racing scene with astonishing wins at the U.S. Junior Olympics. In so doing he became forever associated wita particular ski, the K2 Four, arguably one of the most popular models ever produced.

"When the Four was introduced," says Tim Petrick, CEO of K2 at that time, "the acclaim was nearly universal. But truth be known, we weren't trying to make a race ski with the Four and agreed that while this new shaped ski from K2 might be good for freeskiing, there was no way it was going to work in a racing environment.

"Then Bode Miller blew away the field on a pair of factory seconds at the J.O.s, and the news reverberated through the ski industry. Bode's results got more play than the eight or 10 medals Rossignol had won with sponsored athletes such as Picabo Street and Alberto Tomba at the World Championships. Suddenly the K2 Four had even more credibility, and its popularity exploded. Bode's results put sales over the top."

Miller remembers every turn he's made in every race since he was 14, and his match with the K2 Four seemed made in heaven. "I was trying to do this one thing on skis for years. One day I could bend the ski, get a lot of energy out of it and make it arc cleanly through the snow. Then I couldn't do it again for two weeks. On a good day, on conventional skis, I could make two or three turns like that in a row. But with the K2 Four I could make 10 or 12. It let me do what I wanted to do."

Miller is in many ways reminiscent of the clean-cut Mahre twins, the greatest American success story in skiing. Phil and Steve Mahre collectively won 36 World Cup events, three overall World Cup titles, an Olympic gold and two silvers and a World Championship gold in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Like Miller they skied for K2, a U.S. company. Like Miller, the Mahres for the most part resisted coaching and habitually bucked authorities at the U.S. Ski Team. They won, they believed, by failing to acknowledge that there were many competitors out there who could beat them and by unleashing their natural abilities and not focusing on technique. The Mahre twins, like Miller, were always in attack mode and complained about a lack of work ethic among their teammates.

"Others don't go 110 percent all the time," insists Miller. "I just try to ski like hell. If you do that long enough you figure out how to do it." But he dislikes comparisons to other racers who don't match his body type. At 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, Miller views his build as both an advantage and a handicap. "I'm not compact like Tomba," says Miller. "I have to think more about technique than the Mahres. They were more naturally talented. My long limbs can get out of control. Tall guys like me can have smooth feet. But long-limbed guys have to compensate-wave their arms and stuff just to keep their feet light on the snow. Since I was a kid I had sections of races where I was fastest of all. I know it when it happens. No one in the world is faster. Michael Von Gruenigen and Hermann Maier aren't faster. I know it. These sections teach me better than any coach."

Felix McGrath, a top U.S. technical skier in the post-Mahre era and now ski coach at the University of Vermont, disagrees with Miller's assessment of his own natural abilities. "Bode's miles ahead of where I was at his age," says McGrath. "He's doing things I never dreamed of until much later in my career."

"I use trial and error," Miller says. "I try to make the ski pass through the snow as cleanly as possible, with no drag whatsoever. Felix sees this. It's something he was able to do. But it seems to take me forever to get better. It's going to take a long time to figure out how to do this for a whole course."

When Peg Taylor and her husband, Bode's grandfather, moved east from Squaw Valley, Calif., in 1946, they took jobs at the Tamarack Lodge in Franconia, and began the Tamarack Tennis Camp, which Miller's family has run every summer since. So it's no surprise he's an accomplished tennis player, who was told at an early age, "If you want to be stubborn like your grandmother, be a ski racer. If you want to be smart, be a tennis player."

"Sometimes," he admits, "I wish I'd chosen tennis."

A natural athlete, he plays golf, too, and is so confident in his soccer skills that he considered playing semi-pro in Europe this past summer. He's comfortable on that side of the Atlantic. Historically, competition in Europe has proven a hardship for U.S. skiers-an all but crippling psychological disadvantage. Bode's easy-going nature seems to make him immune to that syndrome.

He's also less harsh in his criticism of the Ski Team than some. "It's not ideal, nothing ever is," he observes. "They give us the opportunity to have lots of success. Sure, there's plenty to complain about, like the gap between athletes and the administration. The athletes want things for themselves; the administrators feel like they own us...I always have issues with how dollars are spent. Each athlete costs about $75,000 a year, and we're constantly reminded of it. I could take the $75,000, accomplish the same thing and have $62,000 left over.

"Still, I'm really lucky. I get paid to do my most favorite thing in the world. Everything is taken care of for me. I get airline tickets in the mail. I can buy cars for my family and send them on trips. All I have to do is keep my body in terrific shape and do the best I can."

He won't put a precise dollar figure on his income last year, but admits, "I made more money last year than 90 percent of the people in Franconia."

"Bode's more popular around here now than before," says his friend, Letourneau, "but he's still the same guy he was in eighth grade. He doesn't flaunt his success."

Miller is as in tune with his equipment needs as he is with himself. He works closely with both his boot supplier, Tecnica, and with K2, suggesting a better performance tweak here, more fiberglass layers there. He has used the same pair of GS race skis for more than a year.

"I can feel the way a ski bends up. Anyone who skied on my best skis could tell the difference. I tell K2 what I think I want, but I'm not always right. They're constantly trying to translate what I need into what they can make."

His reputation for fussing with gear has also become legendary, as is his willingness to blame his failures on his skis rather than his own on-course errors-physical or mental. K2 officials cringed every time his oft-televised crash in last year's combined downhill at the Vail World Championships aired, and their hackles rose when he suggested the skis were at fault. He admitted months later that one ski may have delaminated the day before, during a training run when they slapped the snow below one jump. "Just thinking the ski might be broken screwed with my head. I lost confidence on the slippery snow and bad light near the bottom and went into the fence hard."

George Tormey, who handles racer services for K2, admires Miller's potential and appreciates how articulate he is about what he likes and dislikes. "He's a great kid. I love working with him. Most of all he loves to ski. Give most racers a ski to test, and they'll bring it back after two runs and say, 'That's cool, or can we change this or that?' Give Bode something he digs, and he disappears for 4 hours. I'm stuck sitting in my van in the parking lot until the lifts close."

"Bode knows what he wants and can tell you," confirms Mike Curtis, who worked for Tecnica and built boots for Miller. "That makes my job easy." Like McGrath, Curtis believes Bode could become a ski-racing legend. "We are only seeing hints, so far, of what Bode Miller can do. If he puts it all together he may be unbeatable."

So how good is Bode Miller really? Can he make the U.S. men's team, which has all but fallen off the World Cup radar, visible again? Bill Egan, the U.S. alpine program director, respects Miller's talent and independence, but worries about his inconsistent (sometimes nonexistent) pole plant in slalom, which he needs to stabilize his lanky torso. "Bode's upper . If you want to be smart, be a tennis player."

"Sometimes," he admits, "I wish I'd chosen tennis."

A natural athlete, he plays golf, too, and is so confident in his soccer skills that he considered playing semi-pro in Europe this past summer. He's comfortable on that side of the Atlantic. Historically, competition in Europe has proven a hardship for U.S. skiers-an all but crippling psychological disadvantage. Bode's easy-going nature seems to make him immune to that syndrome.

He's also less harsh in his criticism of the Ski Team than some. "It's not ideal, nothing ever is," he observes. "They give us the opportunity to have lots of success. Sure, there's plenty to complain about, like the gap between athletes and the administration. The athletes want things for themselves; the administrators feel like they own us...I always have issues with how dollars are spent. Each athlete costs about $75,000 a year, and we're constantly reminded of it. I could take the $75,000, accomplish the same thing and have $62,000 left over.

"Still, I'm really lucky. I get paid to do my most favorite thing in the world. Everything is taken care of for me. I get airline tickets in the mail. I can buy cars for my family and send them on trips. All I have to do is keep my body in terrific shape and do the best I can."

He won't put a precise dollar figure on his income last year, but admits, "I made more money last year than 90 percent of the people in Franconia."

"Bode's more popular around here now than before," says his friend, Letourneau, "but he's still the same guy he was in eighth grade. He doesn't flaunt his success."

Miller is as in tune with his equipment needs as he is with himself. He works closely with both his boot supplier, Tecnica, and with K2, suggesting a better performance tweak here, more fiberglass layers there. He has used the same pair of GS race skis for more than a year.

"I can feel the way a ski bends up. Anyone who skied on my best skis could tell the difference. I tell K2 what I think I want, but I'm not always right. They're constantly trying to translate what I need into what they can make."

His reputation for fussing with gear has also become legendary, as is his willingness to blame his failures on his skis rather than his own on-course errors-physical or mental. K2 officials cringed every time his oft-televised crash in last year's combined downhill at the Vail World Championships aired, and their hackles rose when he suggested the skis were at fault. He admitted months later that one ski may have delaminated the day before, during a training run when they slapped the snow below one jump. "Just thinking the ski might be broken screwed with my head. I lost confidence on the slippery snow and bad light near the bottom and went into the fence hard."

George Tormey, who handles racer services for K2, admires Miller's potential and appreciates how articulate he is about what he likes and dislikes. "He's a great kid. I love working with him. Most of all he loves to ski. Give most racers a ski to test, and they'll bring it back after two runs and say, 'That's cool, or can we change this or that?' Give Bode something he digs, and he disappears for 4 hours. I'm stuck sitting in my van in the parking lot until the lifts close."

"Bode knows what he wants and can tell you," confirms Mike Curtis, who worked for Tecnica and built boots for Miller. "That makes my job easy." Like McGrath, Curtis believes Bode could become a ski-racing legend. "We are only seeing hints, so far, of what Bode Miller can do. If he puts it all together he may be unbeatable."

So how good is Bode Miller really? Can he make the U.S. men's team, which has all but fallen off the World Cup radar, visible again? Bill Egan, the U.S. alpine program director, respects Miller's talent and independence, but worries about his inconsistent (sometimes nonexistent) pole plant in slalom, which he needs to stabilize his lanky torso. "Bode's upper body can get wild," says Egan, "and that catches up with him. He can be very fast, but it's no good if you crash and don't finish races.""I'm not that good compared to what I could be," responds Miller. "I'm a kid.

I'm not very mature, but I'm as good or better than most in the world. I'm not worried about finishing or about stabilizing my upper body. To me it's all about being clean, smoothing out the pressure with my feet and keeping the skis moving through the snow. When I have good results, I ski my race. Coaches are learning to leave me alone on race day."

Miller had some astounding (though spotty) results last season, most notably in Adelboden, Switz., where he beat the Hermanator by a wide margin in a second giant slalom run, and in Ofterschwang, Germany, where he also won a second run to finish 4th overall. "In Adelboden I had two sections where I skied great," remembers Miller. "Before I've had one great section, but never two. I began smiling halfway down the course. I don't think anyone could have skied those two sections faster-ever. I came across the finish and saw I was 1.7 seconds ahead. I didn't think I would win, but I knew I could win."

His second run in Germany prompted one Austrian coach to remark, "I've never seen skiing like that before!" Widely quoted in the skiing press, the U.S. Team tried to spin the Austrian's reaction as a sign of great things to come for the Americans. Miller is not so sure. "I take this differently. It was not necessarily a compliment. He might have been sarcastic. I was going so straight, and was so tight on the gates. I can't help but laugh at myself when I see that run on video. Before that run I was delayed in the start gate 4 minutes while they repaired the course. I was lightheaded. I'd never felt so bad about an upcoming run. But I bent down, buckled my boots and suddenly felt calm. After five gates I knew it was going to be good. I skied unbelievably for 15 gates, made a mistake, but still knew I was going to win the run."

It might not always be pretty, but ski racing is never about how you look, always about how fast you are. Bode's eighth-place slalom finish in the Vail World Championships suggests he may be for real. "I need to ski my race when it counts," says Miller. "This gets easier as I get better. It's good to have finished two good runs against the best guys in the world."

Can this unconventional guy with an unorthodox technique be a world-beater? He seems strong enough and tough enough mentally. His appearance and body language can't disguise a shining intelligence. He says he has the commitment and courage to stick it out, and intends to ski all five alpine events in the 2002 Olympics in Utah.

"I want to put myself in a position to win medals in all five events. One medal or none would be great. My expectation may change over time, but one thing I know: I just want to ski."

We've seen many prodigies come through the USST ranks only to fizzle. Touting him as our ski team's savior is certainly premature. His progress will be fun to watch. He's a dark-horse long shot in 2002, but my money's on Bode Miller.

Editor's Note
Stu Campbell wrote this article for SKI in February 2000. Since then, Miller has changed his equipment to Nordica ski boots and Fischer skis.per body can get wild," says Egan, "and that catches up with him. He can be very fast, but it's no good if you crash and don't finish races.""I'm not that good compared to what I could be," responds Miller. "I'm a kid.

I'm not very mature, but I'm as good or better than most in the world. I'm not worried about finishing or about stabilizing my upper body. To me it's all about being clean, smoothing out the pressure with my feet and keeping the skis moving through the snow. When I have good results, I ski my race. Coaches are learning to leave me alone on race day."

Miller had some astounding (though spotty) results last season, most notably in Adelboden, Switz., where he beat the Hermanator by a wide margin in a second giant slalom run, and in Ofterschwang, Germany, where he also won a second run to finish 4th overall. "In Adelboden I had two sections where I skied great," remembers Miller. "Before I've had one great section, but never two. I began smiling halfway down the course. I don't think anyone could have skied those two sections faster-ever. I came across the finish and saw I was 1.7 seconds ahead. I didn't think I would win, but I knew I could win."

His second run in Germany prompted one Austrian coach to remark, "I've never seen skiing like that before!" Widely quoted in the skiing press, the U.S. Team tried to spin the Austrian's reaction as a sign of great things to come for the Americans. Miller is not so sure. "I take this differently. It was not necessarily a compliment. He might have been sarcastic. I was going so straight, and was so tight on the gates. I can't help but laugh at myself when I see that run on video. Before that run I was delayed in the start gate 4 minutes while they repaired the course. I was lightheaded. I'd never felt so bad about an upcoming run. But I bent down, buckled my boots and suddenly felt calm. After five gates I knew it was going to be good. I skied unbelievably for 15 gates, made a mistake, but still knew I was going to win the run."

It might not always be pretty, but ski racing is never about how you look, always about how fast you are. Bode's eighth-place slalom finish in the Vail World Championships suggests he may be for real. "I need to ski my race when it counts," says Miller. "This gets easier as I get better. It's good to have finished two good runs against the best guys in the world."

Can this unconventional guy with an unorthodox technique be a world-beater? He seems strong enough and tough enough mentally. His appearance and body language can't disguise a shining intelligence. He says he has the commitment and courage to stick it out, and intends to ski all five alpine events in the 2002 Olympics in Utah.

"I want to put myself in a position to win medals in all five events. One medal or none would be great. My expectation may change over time, but one thing I know: I just want to ski."

We've seen many prodigies come through the USST ranks only to fizzle. Touting him as our ski team's savior is certainly premature. His progress will be fun to watch. He's a dark-horse long shot in 2002, but my money's on Bode Miller.

Editor's Note
Stu Campbell wrote this article for SKI in February 2000. Since then, Miller has changed his equipment to Nordica ski boots and Fischer skis.