An American Gladiator

Bode Miller, probably the best U.S. male racer ever to set a ski on edge, has announced that he won’t race this season. But he’s being canny about next year. Are you not entertained?
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Bode Miller: American Gladiator tout

Almost a minute and a half into the Birds of Prey downhill at Beaver Creek, Colo., after 
a section called the Abyss, racers must turn sharply left, cross a compression at about 70 miles per hour, and ski straight into a knoll that blocks their view of the next turn.

This obstacle’s unofficial name is Bode’s Demise, in homage to a certain American’s viral-video-ready mishap there in 2003—an ugly crash where the most severe damage was the utter destruction of a fast pair of Rossignols. World Cup backroom chatter has it that a German FIS official first bestowed the moniker, and course workers have been using it ever since.

That became a backstory for what happened at that fearsome little bump on Feb. 5 last year, in the World Championship super G race, when Miller wrecked again in exactly the same spot. This time Miller was 37 years old, not a rubber-limbed 25-year-old, the crash was much more violent, and Miller was just 12 weeks past endoscopic back surgery.

It was Miller’s first race of the season, but the gold medal was in reach (he was faster at the middle interval than Hannes Reichelt of Austria, the race’s winner). As Miller approached the knoll he cut off a little too much line and caught his left arm on a blue gate. The panel yanked tight in his armpit and twisted his trunk just
as he flew off the knoll in an accidental helicopter. His body rotated on two or three axes before he landed, backward, on his head and tumbled into a variety of possible mechanisms of injury.

“I still am pissed that that panel didn’t come off,” says Miller’s longtime friend and coach, Forest Carey, eight months later. “If you watch in slow motion, it stopped him dead in his tracks. I think he might have skied out of it. It would have ruined his race, no doubt, but one of his greatest abilities is being able to recover or at least minimize the damage.”

It takes a long time to slow to a stop on the ice-infused, Kevlar-like Birds of Prey downhill course. And as Miller slid toward the awestruck crowd he waved stiffly—clearly in pain. The international broadcast feed cut away to an image of his pregnant wife, Morgan, a professional volleyball player, and his two children (from previous relationships). Finally Miller stopped and slowly tried to get up. Then, with the adrenaline diminishing, he discovered that amid the cartwheeling spill the razor-sharp edge of his ski had sliced deeply into the back of his right leg, severing a tendon. As he made his way gingerly down to the finish, gory screen-grabs of the bloody gash on his calf went viral. More appropriate for a slasher film, the images showed a seemingly surgical-grade incision through his red Spyder speed suit, neatly cutting through skin and deep into muscle.

That night there was surgery, followed by a retreat to southern California—
the 8,000-square-foot house Miller
had purchased in a gated community between his hat-trick triumph at the 2010 Vancouver Games (bronze, silver, gold) and his sentimental bronze at Sochi in 2014. (Perhaps indicating major changes ahead in his life, his California house went on the market for nearly $5 million as this story was going to press.) His season was over, and perhaps so was his career.

“We had 40 seconds of glory,” Carey says, quoting Chris Krause, who serviced Miller’s Head skis that day and was another member of the small inner circle of U.S. Ski Team personnel that Miller built around himself after disbanding his championship-winning private squad in 2009. “A lot of work and planning had gone into getting him ready for that race and everything seemed to be lining up for him to put on a big show.”

Miller hasn’t officially retired, and given his recent history of late starts and rehabilitative sabbaticals, fans shouldn’t expect a definitive promise either way. In an Oct. 27 interview, he told me he had ruled out racing in the 2015–16 season—not retiring, but taking a year to focus on parenting his three small children and chasing several new business ventures. A longtime aficionado of horse racing, Miller has opened an ambitious new thoroughbred training stable in Maryland, called Double Black Diamond Racing. Nine years after NBC Sports sage Bob Costas predicted that Miller was destined to be “forgotten,” the network has signed Miller up as an on-air analyst at the Birds of Prey races, Dec. 4 through 6. “I thought I’d give it a try, see how it feels,” Miller says. “If I have fun with it, maybe I’ll do more.”

Might he return to the slopes? All Miller will say is that it’s “really unlikely” he will race all the way to the Winter Games in South Korea in 2018, when he’ll be 40. Those close to him say he intends to return to the World Cup circuit at some point; a logical target in 2017 is Kitzbühel, the famed Austrian race where Miller has never quite won the downhill.

If he does return, perhaps he will be on equipment from Bomber Ski, a new company led by New York real estate investor Robert Siegel. After wiggling out of his contract with Head, Miller signed with Bomber this summer and has taken an equity interest in the company. He says the company has the potential to develop a World Cup giant-slalom ski. “He’s going to be involved in every aspect of the company, from the business plan to the designs of the skis,” says Siegel.

Those wishing for an affirmative sign of Miller’s eventual return to snow can turn to Miller’s wife’s Instagram feed. Soon after giving birth to Miller’s third child, Nash Skan Miller, on May 18, Morgan Miller posted a photo of her placenta, dried and pulverized and placed in capsules. In the caption, she noted that her husband had already popped a few of the capsules, which are said to aid in recovery.

Prodigy. Pioneer. Rebel. Survivor.

Bode Miller has earned each of these titles in his 20 years at the top of alpine ski racing. A fouler set of labels stuck to him after the gloomy winter of 2005–06, when Miller notoriously went zero for 5 in the medals at the Torino Olympics and committed reputational arson with a few disastrous comments and some unflattering nightclub photos.

“I got to party and socialize at an Olympic level,” Miller said from Italy. This little quote, along with a wayward remark on 60 Minutes about skiing while drunk the year before, contributed to Miller’s falling out with U.S. Team administrators in 2007. These comments torched Miller’s public profile too, casting him, unfairly, as America’s version of the entitled modern athlete. But rising from the ashes of all those burned bridges was the skier who would become a sort of elder statesman of the circuit and help modernize the whole U.S. program.

It’s even tempting now to say that today’s polished crop of champions—Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin, and Ted Ligety—benefited from Miller’s 2006 trip to rock bottom, after which team administrators and coaches learned to adapt the program to better accommodate its biggest stars and the unique pressure they face as celebrities in this age of social media, self-branding, and, in Vonn’s case, paparazzi, red carpets, and private jets.

For Miller, all missteps were eclipsed in 2010, when he returned from a two-and-a-half-year exile from the U.S. Ski Team and won bronze, silver, and gold on the rugged Olympic slope at Whistler Blackcomb. He had snuck into those Games, having flirted with retirement and started the season late, injured, and without equipment. With Vonn carrying the burden of American expectations, Miller had the chance to play the underdog role that has always suited him best.

In the five years since, informed fans have accepted the idea of Miller, once the sport’s enfant terrible, as its veteran ambassador. Miller mostly avoids the media spotlight, choosing carefully when to speak out on safety issues or to help the national team’s parent organization, USSA, raise funds from corporate sponsors and private donors. He speaks as someone who has started 795 FIS races since 1994, forged deep relationships with five European ski factories, run his own World Cup team, and seen peers endure catastrophic crashes resulting in broken necks, permanent brain damage, and, in one case, a lower-leg amputation.

Miller vividly recalls the career-ending head injury Austrian downhiller Hans Grugger suffered at Kitzbühel in 2011, when Grugger crashed off the fearsome Mausfalle jump near the top of the terrifying Streif course.

“You could see it at the start gate—every one of us was like, ‘That dude is going to be in a coma,’” Miller says. “Unless you’ve faced that and had to go out of the start gate after that, you can’t imagine what it takes. If you’re not throwing your body forward with the full intention of going fast, you’re going to get injured.”

Miller had plenty of injuries, but nothing life-altering. Surviving, he says, was largely about luck, but also about the recovery instincts he honed as a youngster.

“I couldn’t rely on talent, so I had to take so much more risk and had to do so many extreme things,” says Miller. “I was only able to reach a certain level on my skill. I had to take crazy risks after that...I saw my friend run into a beech tree and split his head open when I was eight years old skiing at Cannon, so I knew about the bad side of the sport from a very young age.”

The wisdom and racing know-how Miller has collected over his career are unlike anything that was available to him in 1996, when he qualified for the U.S. Team with a surprise third-place finish at the national championships at Sugarloaf. (He was a senior at nearby Carrabassett Valley Academy and hardly the school’s brightest prospect.) Back then the U.S. Team was struggling through CEO turnover and budget mismanagement. The same week Miller made the team, some top coaches quit and others convened an emergency summit meeting to discuss a perceived crisis in the development of young talent.

Now we have Vonn, Shiffrin, Julia Mancuso, and Miller’s protégé, Ted Ligety. The team’s renaissance, led by Miller, has inverted the whole coach-racer relationship; new members of the team’s coaching staff have vastly more to learn from Miller and his teammates than the other way around. After stints on the World Cup, U.S. Ski Team coaches now take positions in some of the USSA’s more than 300 youth clubs, helping the strategies and mindset of championship skiing migrate to the next generation.

Miller is also hoping to take a more formal role in educating young skiers on the team. For a supremely gifted athlete, but one with an iconoclastic view of the world, it’s not surprising that Miller’s greatest effect on American ski racing might be structural changes in how the ski team deals with its young charges. Essentially: Less whip, more sugar cubes. And much more latitude in career self-determination by all athletes, especially the rock stars.

“For being the world-class athlete that he is, he cares a lot about his teammates,” says U.S. Ski and Snowbird Association CEO and president Tiger Shaw. “The coaches see it and comment on it a lot. He’s trying to help the young up-and-comers. He’s so concerned about the knowledge transfer. He doesn’t want it lost. He wants success to breed success.”

It’s impossible to pinpoint a date when Miller slipped into the seasoned-veteran role, but the process was certainly complete by Nov. 29, 2011, the day he led a protest by World Cup downhillers over what they saw as unsafe terrain on the Birds of Prey course.

Miller’s protest—he stood on a knoll during the course-inspection period and consulted with each of the top 30 skiers
 in the event—resulted in the cancellation of the day’s training run while terrain adjustments were made. That evening, the top FIS official on site publicly commended Miller’s professionalism. This happened in the aftermath of a hideous spate of major injuries on some of the world’s classic downhill venues. There sometimes seemed to be a cold war between the racers and the FIS, but here was a temporary thaw.

“For a long time, even the guys on my own team wouldn’t call me a spokesman for them,” Miller says. “In that case it just so happened that all of our opinions fell on the same side. But I do think I’ve proven that I look out for my teammates, and I do look out for the general populace.”

So if it’s really over for Miller, let’s pause to see what the record books will have to say about this New Hampshire icon, who started skiing on the trails behind
 the Tamarack Tennis Camp in Franconia before spending truant days devising his own technique at Cannon Mountain.

First there are 33 World Cup wins between 2001 and 2011, including the famous downhills at Wengen and Bormio, the night slalom at Schladming, and the historic combined at Kitzbühel. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever match Miller’s winning streak of December 2004, when he collected victories in all four of the sport’s disciplines in the span of just 16 days. That, rightly, is the DNA of legitimate ski-racing legend.

There is another record-setting streak running through the 438 World Cup races Miller started since his first in 1997, and
it earns him the participation award. Between 2002 and 2006, Miller started in 136 consecutive races, finally skipping a race so he could take a pre-Olympic golf vacation with his brother Chelone. He is, quite simply, the Cal Ripken of ski racing.

Add to those World Cup wins Miller’s six Olympic medals, four World Championship golds, and six World Cup discipline titles. As for the trophy that means the most to ski racers—the overall World Cup season title—Miller has two of them: one from 2005 that snapped a 22-year dry spell for the United States, and another that he won in 2008, after splitting from the team and forming his own program, Team America.

What no trophy case can reflect is the unconventional racing style that got Miller to the top—a way of carving that turned the pieties of technique and tactics upside down, making virtues out of what many coaches would have previously called bad habits. Leaning his hips back, he put bend in the tails of his skis; holding his arms out to his sides (rather than driving them forward) enhanced his balance, though all the windmilling gave him an appearance of recklessness.

“The thing that good coaches could see was that his ankles were always flexed, even when his arms were swinging all over the place or his hips were back,” says Thomas Erhard, one of Miller’s early coaches on the national team. “That’s a crucial point that the ski team is focusing a lot on now. There’s something in his anatomy, his strength, and mainly his understanding of making skis go that allows him to keep those ankles flexed and the skis pressured.”

Tommy Moe, the 1994 Olympic downhill champion, vividly recalls the first time 
he saw the unorthodox approach, made possible in part by Miller’s willingness to try what was then considered to be the ridiculously sidecut K2 Four at the 1996 U.S. Championships. In a 2011 interview, Moe described the day in April of 1996 when he looked down from a Mt. Bachelor chairlift and saw Miller. It was a NorAm GS, late in the start order, and Miller came down with a beat-up old race suit and a radically direct line. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God,’” Moe recalled in a 2011 interview. “He was just ripping. Best skier I’d ever seen.”

Miller matched that technique with a rare mental toughness that allowed him to continue his kamikaze approach despite all the crashing and discomfort it caused. Go online and you’ll find video clips in which Miller skis up on the fencing at Kitzbühel’s infamous Steilhang exit, or completes most of the Bormio downhill on one ski. You’ll also find disasters like the most recent one at Beaver Creek—crashes where Miller breaks his ankle, blows out his knee, and bloodies his mouth with gates to the face. It’s driven his coaches to fits, but when Miller says that winning isn’t his primary drive when competing—it’s giving it his all on the course—it’s not a crafted sound bite for kids to digest. It’s the truth.

“He’s had plenty of injuries, and the fact that he’s kept going speaks to his perseverance and his skill, to be able to navigate all that,” says Shaw, who replaced Bill Marolt at the helm of the team in March 2014. “He’s not a spring chicken anymore, but Bode figures out how to get to where he wants to go.”

Today the most interesting question isn’t how much longer Miller will continue to race but what he’ll do after he’s done. He has invested heavily in thoroughbred horses with an eye toward the Triple Crown racing scene. The folks at NBC, who have extended their Olympic broadcast rights through 2032, would be happy to have Miller’s commentary beyond this season’s gig at the Birds of Prey World Cup races.

But the most meaningful work ahead
 in Miller’s eyes might be his Turtle Ridge Foundation, the nonprofit he set up in 
2005 to support adaptive skiing and youth-sports organizations. Among the grateful recipients of TRF funding is Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, which got a $100,000 donation toward its new facility at Pico Mountain.

I recently wrote a book about ski racing, which included unauthorized biographies of Miller and Vonn. Miller was the more open of the two, and toward the end of 
my writing project I went to his family’s Tamarack Tennis Club, which was hosting the Bode Bash, an annual golf and tennis tournament that brings in hundreds of supporters. (Bode, a passionate and skilled tennis player growing up, was a high school champion and a few years back competed in a U.S. Open qualifying tournament.)

There I met volunteers and officers from a network of supporters of disabled skiing. They showed me the advanced shock-absorption technology in a new generation of sit-skis. I was reminded of an interview Miller gave to Scottish journalist Neil McQuoid and me in 2004, in Flachau, Austria. Miller had talked about the potential of shock-absorbing ski-boot setups and theorized that a “gentlemen’s agreement” among the manufacturers kept them from realizing the potential. Miller drank an entire two-liter bottle of orange Fanta in the course of the interview.

At the Bode Bash, fans can mix it up with the legendary skier on Tamarack tennis courts on Saturday, or on the
 golf course the next day. In the spring there is the Bode Fest, a youth ski race at Bretton Woods in either March or April, depending in part on whether Bode is at World Cup Finals.

One of the foundation’s board members is Miller’s childhood friend Cameron Shaw-Doran, who was paralyzed in a 
car accident and later took up sit-skiing, or what the TRF calls monoskiing. Frustrated by the high cost and poor design of the monoskis he used, Shaw-Doran began collaborating with some MIT-affiliated engineers to develop a better model that could be produced for less than a third of the price of what was on the market.

Kyla Clark, the Turtle Ridge Foundation president (and Miller’s
 sister) says TRF gives the monoskis
 away because “we don’t want people to have to have a financial reason why they can’t do it.” Instead, TRF asks donors 
to pledge money for monoskis that cost $2,000 to $2,500 apiece. To see the wealthy benefactors line up behind the project is to be reminded of how Bode Miller got to the top of skiing through acts of charity—scholarships, the patience of coaches, and ski-team donations.

Surveying everything that has come since, Miller says he has few regrets. He made some sacrifices, he says, but not as many as some others.

“It’s one of the reasons I was so criticized, is what I didn’t sacrifice. I was better at balancing what sacrifices I was willing to make,” Miller says. “That’s one of the really challenging things about ski racing. You can get all these trophies and accolades and have no life. I put enough into it but didn’t give up the rest of my life, so I’m not one of these athletes who gets to the end and says, ‘Where did 
my childhood go?’ Or ‘Where did my twenties go?’”

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