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“It’s Not a Beauty Contest”: Bode Miller On Skiing Fast and Crashing (A Lot)

The legendary downhiller shares what it takes to be the best, and why failure is an important part of the process.

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At the recent SnoBound Expo in Boston, Doug Lewis interviewed Bode Miller in front of a small crowd. Lewis—a world championship downhill bronze medalist in 1985—introduced the skiing legend by listing his number of World Cup starts (438), World Cup victories (33), and DNFs—ski racing parlance for did not finish (120).

“Thank you for the introduction,” Bode quipped. “I like hearing how many times I crashed.” Lewis then asked about Miller’s kids (eight) and what life is like as a dad (busy, tiring, fun, “I couldn’t be happier”). From there, they talked racing, ski racer-to-ski racer. Here, in Miller’s words (edited for clarity), he explains why he was fast, how he dealt with failure, and what his favorite race was.

Doug Lewis: Were you always fast as a young ski racer? Did it come easily for you? Did you have to struggle?

Bode Miller: You said my stats. I struggled all the way through my career. But I was always fast. I wouldn’t say intrinsically or genetically I had some magical speed. I just had a unique perspective on tactics. I continually pushed way past what my ability would allow me to do at the time, which looked terrible, but it was fast if I could make the finish. I know my body and knew that I could deal with crashes better than most people. That was really the only way that I was going to be ultimately successful at the highest level was to keep as much speed as I could and try to let my technique and body and physical ability catch up.

Because I did that, I was under a lot of stress on a regular basis because every time I kicked out of the gate, I knew there was a really small likelihood that I would make it to the finish.

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So when I got to the highest level of racing, I was much more prepared for the stress. Training prior to races, I’d be third, fifth, sixth, getting beaten by guys on my own team. Then we’d race, and I would win, and they wouldn’t qualify [for a second run]. They’d be three and a half-second behind. That’s just because I was able to manage the same technique tactics under stress.

If kids look at the sport, it’s not a beauty contest. It’s a race from point A to point B, and you have to go around the gates. The thing that’s going to make you good is if you can go as fast as you can and know how to manage mistakes. For me, that worked. It’s not the solution for other people.

Lewis: It seemed like you thought failure was an opportunity to learn while others are scared of failure. Can you talk about the mental side of failing? That seemed to not affect you.

Miller: I wouldn’t say it didn’t affect me. But my grandparents are from New Hampshire. There’s not a more stubborn population on the planet. My grandmother told me, “You’re the most stubborn kid I’ve ever seen.” I’ve had a lot of really valuable, meaningful conversations with her and my grandfather. He was a historian and a military guy and he would always quote these old wives quotes to me. Apparently, a bunch of them stuck. Things like, “Failure comes when you quit,” and “It’s not mistakes that keep you from success, it’s just another part of the process of how you become successful.”

But [failure] was still frustrating. At Aspen in ’01, I was going to win, and then I fell over three gates from the finish [and ended up 26th]. It would have been my first World Cup win, and I was starting in the 50s [bib 53]. I was pissed. In interviews that night, it’s mostly a lot of beeps. It’s easy to look back now that I’ve had success and know it was part of the process. I went out the next day and got second. I actually did back off a little bit and made it down. That was the beginning of my World Cup success.

Lewis: Are there races or a race that meant a lot to you?

Miller: My first World Cup [a men’s giant slalom on November 20, 1997]. I finished 11th—nothing spectacular, except it probably would have been the only world cup I started that year if I hadn’t qualified for a second run. The only reason I got in was because we were hosting the race at Park City, and we had an extra quota spot.

First run, I started 69th, and the start area was empty. There’s a guy from Kazakhstan and one guy from Hungary up there with me. No one else. All the guys who had qualified were already inside getting ready for the second run.

I remember just being like, “Alright, here I am, this is the top of the world, this is the World Cup, my first one. If I don’t stomp it now, it’s not happening.” So I went out and went absolutely bonkers. It was some of the worst looking skiing I’ve done in my life, even when I was little. But I ended up qualifying in 23rd. I was the only American who qualified for a second run. I skied the second run just out of my mind and finished 11th and made the A team and made the Olympics in 1998.

Things would have been really different had any number of things not gone correctly [in that race], or had I approached it differently. I understood that and was willing to take the risk.

Question from the audience: Is [eight-time overall World Cup champion] Marcel Hirscher the best skier ever?

Miller: Mikaela [Shiffrin] is better than Marcel. She’s the best I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t around for Stenmark, but the fact that Mikaela can win in four events and with a precision that’s taking the style that skiing has become now, with how precise you have to be in the tech events, and how much risk you have to take in the speed events, for specialists to beat specialists consistently, when you’re skiing everything … Marcel didn’t do that. He dabbled and he was successful, like Ted [Ligerty] was in super-G, and they’re amazing athletes so they can do it. But it’s just a different thing what she’s doing.

I would say [Olympic GS gold medalist and 2022 overall World Cup champion Marco] Odermatt is probably the only dude that I’ve seen in the last 10 years who fits that kind of category. He just looks like he was born on skis. His tactics are amazing, physically he’s solid, technically he’s more or less perfect. We’ll see.

 

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