or Connect
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:

More Bode/NY Times (long)

post #1 of 3
Thread Starter 
from their new "sports magazine" (online)

February 5, 2006

When Fame and Talent Collide


Since every sports fan, consciously or not, is a fan of myth, it may be useful, before considering the question mark appended to the figure of Bode Miller, to bring to mind the example of a free-spirited boy named Icarus. Icarus was given wings of feathers and wax — high-tech, aerodynamic equipment in its day — with which to flee the confines of his existence. His flight coach warned him to avoid hovering too low, lest he wipe out on a wave, or soaring too high, lest he flame out. But Icarus was a fiend for novelty and daring. Flying felt good. It felt free. Icarus caught tremendous air, as the saying goes, and launched himself through the sky. He could sense the temperature rising. It must, he thought, be the heat of the moment, that special flush that animates adventure seekers. But it was more than that. It was the sun. Soon, Icarus' gear was toast. He fell. He streaked across the horizon, and disappeared into the sea with a splash. Some observers were saddened by the spectacle. Others found the humbling of Icarus to be a case of just deserts.
Bode Miller's wings are bound to his feet, and he is a landlubber through and through, but he has built a career, and a persona, on his knack for rescuing himself from perilous spots.

When he was 13, he triggered an avalanche while trying to ski down the sheer headwall of Tuckerman Ravine, on New Hampshire's Mount Washington. The slide swept him under, but he hit a boulder and his head popped above the surface of the snow. He waited to be dug out. "I wasn't shocked at all," he reflected years later. "I wasn't even scared. Looking back on it, I felt incredibly calm."

Miller is a devotee of the creed that holds that only those who flirt with serious jeopardy can learn to save themselves. He became a master of speed through a dedicated commitment to veer out of control often and in creative ways, and then to see what kinds of defiant acts of self-preservation he could pull off. "Nobody can make the recoveries Bode does with the frequency he does," says Steve Porino, a former United States Ski Team racer who will cover the Alpine events for NBC this month in Turin. "He's the Houdini of recovery."

He'd better be. Until Jan. 8, when Miller was treated to his "60 Minutes" of fame, courtesy of CBS, he was simply the greatest American athlete of whose existence most of his countrymen were barely conscious. Then, in an interval that a racer like Miller might measure in hundredths of a second, life became far less simple. He was deemed public property and learned that Americans — who understand him even less than they do the nuances of the sport he has revolutionized — can be very fussy consumers. Miller, it seemed, had crossed a line by admitting that he had celebrated his victory in last year's World Cup — a four-month-long, 40-race odyssey that no American had won in 22 years, and that in Europe holds the prestige of the Tour de France and Wimbledon combined — with an evening of old-fashioned tippling. So raucous was Miller's merriment, in fact, that when he arrived on the slopes for the next day's anticlimactic race, he was still suffering the effects of alcohol pollution.

Following Miller's disclosure, a time-honored American sport — in which the manufacturers of "heroes" are shown to love nothing more than a pariah — got under way with a vengeance, and Miller was reduced to the role of spectator. The media called him a boozer and a sinner, and shouted puns on "Miller Time." Columnists in such snowflake-free zones as Florida deemed Miller unfit to represent Old Glory in the upcoming Olympic Games. Bad timing did nothing to help: an issue of Maxim was just about to hit the newsstands with an article that captured our lad in full-bore party mode, reveling in his penchant for what, in more innocent times, might have been called salty language. (A video on Maxim's Web site showed Miller lounging in a hot tub with the magazine's bikini-clad correspondent.) All of the hubbub came at a time when Miller was in the midst of a bafflingly mediocre World Cup season, and observers like Chad Fleischer, a two-time United States downhill champion and now a commentator for Outdoor Life Network, would tell me, "The word on the street is that Bode is burned out."

Indeed, Miller had spent the summer following his World Cup triumph in the throes of a bout of melancholia, soul-searching and indecisiveness worthy of a Danish prince. He had nothing left to accomplish in ski racing, he repeated to whoever would listen, and could barely fathom why he should keep making the deep knee bends, other than to please those companies whose names he had allowed to be grafted onto his equipment for a price of some $3 million a year. Last fall, an autobiography came out called "Bode: Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun," in which Miller commented, with a characteristic disregard for the clichés of athletic humility, "When you're as good as it gets, you start to get bored." Further, he reflected, "some guys are as stoked the hundredth time they succeed at something as they were the first. Not me."

Miller had, it appeared, made the classic American error of believing that the skills that had won him accolades and riches could also inoculate him from demands for a certain brand of good behavior. He had overstepped. A scarlet letter would have to be added to his already cluttered racing suit. It seemed that regardless of his sublime gifts — as the team's head coach, Phil McNichol, says, "He's talented enough that if you told him to balance a cup of water on his head and ski down a slalom course, he could do it" — one trick Miller would no longer be permitted was that of skiing and speaking his mind at the same time.

Miller is, by disposition, an outsider, and his peculiar sensibility — a blend of the carefree and the scarily intense — was spawned in Franconia, N.H., a 1,000-person idyll in the rugged and intemperate White Mountains. Franconia's other best-known resident, for a time, was the poet Robert Frost, whose brand of skeptical, rooted-in-the-soil individualism may well have found its post-punk Alpine embodiment in Miller's unshaven features and 6 feet 2 inches, 210 pounds of hulking athleticism. A team of copywriters could not have cooked up a more effective story to support Miller's tendency toward self-mythologizing: He was raised in a plumbing-and-power-free cabin a mile deep in the woods, and was prone to tap sugar maples for sap rather than eat Hershey bars. His parents celebrated the solstice, scraped by on meager income from odd jobs, and made attempts to start a commune. The Millers' brand of counterculturalism was less Haight-Ashbury than Live Free or Die. Risk-taking, emotional toughness and physical prowess were valued. If it was cold in the cabin, you chopped more wood.

Miller started skiing at age 2. Home-schooled until third grade, he frequented the slopes of nearby Cannon Mountain on weekdays. "My friends were all tied up in school, that medium-security prison with the chain-link fence and the monkey bars," he writes in his autobiography, "and I was free to do as I pleased." Cannon is no Aspen. Its runs are steep, narrow and typically covered with a thick, icy glaze that locals call boilerplate. Miller taught himself to ski by hurling himself down the mountain with a contempt for restraint. His first formal ski lesson came when he entered public school and went on a class field trip. The instructor, he writes, "used an old-school method that involved skiing in lines, like in the Ice Capades, and never doing anything that didn't involve everyone else doing it at the same time." That was not Miller's way. "I could already ski, so I didn't need any french fry-pizza pie instruction. I skipped ski lessons and just skied. It made so much more sense."

When, at age 14, Miller earned a scholarship to attend Carrabassett Valley Academy, a training ground for skiers at the base of Maine's Sugarloaf Mountain, he remained unwelcoming of instruction. "Bode wanted to go fast first and develop the technique to handle his speed later," recalls Chip Cochrane, a ski coach at Carrabassett. "He had his own ideas about what to do and what not to do. He was figuring it out for himself."

Miller's skiing style was not just unorthodox; from a traditional standpoint, it was flat out wrong. Instead of keeping his weight over the center of his feet, he sat far back on his skis — a posture commonly derided as backseat driving. The position allowed Miller to let his skis run fast, frequently at the expense of maintaining his balance. His bursts of speed would be followed by falls. Unlike other young skiers, though, Miller seemed unfazed by wipeouts. "There were times when he'd go for a month and not finish a run," Cochrane says. "Then one day he'd finally get through it, and come up to me and say, 'I've figured it out."'

Miller didn't care what others thought of how he looked on the slopes. He was simply on a mission to go faster than other skiers thought was advisable or possible. To do so involved skiing a shorter course: keeping to a straighter line and refusing to lose speed to turns. He skied like someone who would prefer to enter a house by running through a wall rather than taking the time to open the door. So of course he often got slammed. But his self-confidence was such that he believed he could find the key to maximum velocity through his own trial-and-error experiments. When parabolic skis — hourglass-shaped models that were designed to help recreational skiers turn more easily — were introduced, Miller declared them to his liking and used them at a National Junior Championships competition. It was akin to showing up for a foot race in a pair of flip-flops. Miller won three races, one of them by a jaw-dropping margin of more than two seconds. That same year, in 1996, still a relative unknown, he secured a spot on the United States Ski Team.

Miller and the ski team never made for a fully comfortable fit. It wasn't that Miller was hostile or disruptive; indeed, he was well liked by teammates and coaches. But it is one of the oddities of the sport that professional skiing is a team activity that glorifies individual achievements. A skier is expected to submit to the goals and protocols of the team that supports him. That was not easy for Miller to do.

"It was obvious from the start that Bode had unbelievable athletic ability," says John McBride, the head coach of super-G and downhill racers. "But he was not necessarily disciplined. He was pretty much pedal to the metal." (Alpine racing comprises four main disciplines: the high-speed events of downhill and super-G, where the courses are long, steep and open, and the technical events of slalom and giant slalom, which test the skier's ability to thread numerous gates. A fifth event, the combined, consists of one downhill and two slalom courses, raced the same day. Miller is the only American skier, and one of the few in the world, to race in all disciplines, and to be a serious contender in each.)

As a result of his heedless style, Miller fell often, or, as McBride puts it, "His finish rate was not consistent." Miller irked his coaches by insisting on skiing the way he knew best: fast, reckless and on the edge of control. He was rather like a burgeoning virtuoso pianist who believed that there were more important things than hitting all the right notes. After one season, the team made it clear that he was on the way out.

But Miller's speed won the day. He skied with just enough control to start winning races, and soon it became apparent that the team needed Miller badly enough to put up with him. "We always had a tremendous stir on the team about Bode being unorthodox, crazy, unbalanced, flailing about," says Phil McNichol. "But, boy, he was fast. At first, he was moving his skis so fast that his body was just along for the ride."

In 2001, at the World Championships in St. Anton, Austria, Miller suffered payback for his risk-prone approach. During the downhill race, he caught an edge of his ski and sailed garishly through the air. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament and dislodged cartilage in his left knee, potentially career-ending injuries that required surgery. While in recovery, he learned that the United States Ski Team had stopped paying his expenses.

Miller returned to Franconia and undertook his own homemade program of rehabilitation. He did squats on a jury-rigged mechanism that he has likened to a torture device. He rode a unicycle. He ran a loaded wheelbarrow up a hilly state highway.

The next season, he was back. He became the first American to win a World Cup race in nearly 20 years, then won again the following day. That winter, at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, the American public got its introduction to Miller. He skied what many observers considered one of the great slalom races in history, plummeting down the course like a zipper and making rapid-fire turns with spectacular nimbleness. He won the silver medal. A week later, he won a second silver medal, in the giant slalom. Miller further endeared himself to the crowds during a race he lost. He had a miserable, off-kilter run in the slalom event, losing control and skiing off the course. With his chances for a third medal squandered, he nonetheless turned around, climbed back uphill and insisted on finishing the race.

Phil Mahre, the legendary American skier who won three World Cup championships in the early 1980's, has said of Miller: "He looks a little bit 'Gumby' sometimes. His lower body is going one direction, his upper body is going another. It's not really pretty to watch." Indeed, Miller is a purist's nightmare. Although he has the fastest, most dynamic footwork of any skier — an ability that allows him to cut turns at steeper angles and to generate sudden bursts of speed — his upper body can, as a result, be jolted as brutally as a bull rider's. Miller has written that those who object to his skiing on aesthetic grounds are "confusing truth with beauty. Perfect form may be beautiful, but in ski racing, winning times translate as truth." Miller was, for once, being modest. He is a marvel to watch. If the great Austrian champ Hermann Maier is persistently likened to a machine, then Miller is his all-too-human counterpart: a skier who manages to enact, by way of his sport, the drama of a soul in free fall struggling to rescue itself.

By mid-January, Miller's only World Cup victory this season had come in Beaver Creek, Colo., at the tour's sole American stop. He was racing in the giant slalom event, in which skiers must thread some five dozen gates on a steep vertical drop. The previous day, he had finished second in the downhill behind the American veteran Daron Rahlves, a soft-spoken, self-contained and technically superb skier who is often described as Miller's alter ego and whose blazing performances this season have positioned him as perhaps Miller's toughest competition. Rahlves put on the pressure by skiing his second run to perfection: crisp, tight, clean and efficient.

Miller's run, by contrast, was laced with fundamental errors. Within seconds of the start, he entered a turn too late, collapsed onto his left hip and bounced through the snow in a sitting position, appearing to render moot the distinction between falling and skiing. A moment later, he hit a bump and was thrown aloft, his legs splayed in opposite directions. As he continued downhill, his body swung like a fast-moving pendulum. It was as if he were being tossed down the mountain. Still, he managed to stay in the course, screaming at the top of his lungs as he careered through gates. As he neared the bottom of the slope, he suffered a final near-disaster: his skis slipped out from under him, and he fell backward. Once more he righted himself. When he crossed the finish line, he threw himself face forward into the snow. One television announcer said it was a miracle that Miller had completed the run while skiing in such a manner. There was a further miracle: his time was a half-second faster than Rahlves's.

Miller's victory at Beaver Creek demonstrated the secret of his huge appeal as an athlete: he races as what he is — raw, reckless, occasionally inelegant, always uninhibited. His skiing aims for more than technical perfection; it seems to exalt in a romantic relationship with danger. It wants to test the limits. What might it be like to be Miller? "You scream by fences, trees, TV cameras, and people at eighty miles an hour plus," he writes in his book. "For me, this is as powerful and alive as I ever feel. And all I care about at that moment is going to that place where nothing matters and time slows."

It can't be easy to have both a showman's need to turn heads and a brooder's need for solitude. Since 2002, when he became a frequent winner on the World Cup circuit, Miller has been trailed through Europe like a rock star. "Fans can't help but be attracted to the feats of amazement that the guy pulls off," McNichol comments. "He skis so well and with such flair and fluidity that it's more art than sport at times. On top of that," he continues, "you throw in this brazen, antiestablishment sort of cowboy who says what's on his mind, and a lot of people in the global community say: 'That guy's cool. I wish I could tell everyone to go screw themselves, like he does."'

At times, Miller enjoys the attention he receives. He cheerfully signs autographs for children. He does not eschew the night life of the World Cup ski towns. He embraces the platform his fame has provided him to air his views, whether he is ridiculing as irrational and degrading the drug-testing policy of F.I.S., the Switzerland-based bureaucracy that runs the World Cup, or threatening to start an alternative ski racing tour that would more equitably distribute the proceeds of the sport among athletes, or making a point about the value of competitions by announcing that he had used his gold medal from the 2003 World Championships to prop a faulty toilet seat. There is no doubt that Miller has not simply had fame thrust on him. He participated in making a reverent documentary of his life, "Flying Downhill," and he was not too shy to write an autobiography, and he took on a weekly gig for Sirius radio, and he has, of course, accepted the largess of his corporate sponsors. But he seems, somehow, to have believed that he could become an industry and still remain himself. After the "60 Minutes" incident, that prospect appeared all the more unlikely.

Miller had already grown increasingly isolated from the ski team. He no longer traveled with the team or stayed in the team hotel, preferring to cloister himself in a 32-foot motor home outfitted with a king-size bed and a plasma-screen TV on which to play his favorite video games. His attendance at training sessions and team meetings had grown erratic, and his longstanding deafness to coaching had bloomed into something like disdain. Carrie Sheinberg, a former Olympic skier who now works as a journalist, says: "Bode presents a real problem for the team. He has become the evil stepchild of the ski team. But he's exactly what they need to put the team on the map." In the wake of "60 Minutes," McNichol says, "the team and Bode may have grown apart to the point where he has to re-evaluate if he still wants to be here. He has to decide whether he wants to be an island."

For a few days, it was unclear how Miller would respond to the team's demands for a public apology. (Curiously, Miller's personal sponsors, including Barilla pasta, the ski maker Atomic, and Nike, which has fashioned an elaborate Winter Olympics ad campaign around Miller, made no complaints about the "60 Minutes" clip, though they came short of expressing gratitude for the free publicity generated by the stir.) It was hard to imagine a display of fawning contrition, or even a statement that showed he understood what it took to perform the postmodern role of athlete-as-corporate-flag-bearer, à la Michael Jordan or Lance Armstrong. And if anybody expected Miller to be an upstanding example to impressionable children, his autobiography seemed to provide his final word on the subject: "The role-model Nazis of the left and right, the political- and moral-correctness police who demand that top athletes all behave like the people they wish they'd grown up to be — I say screw them."

Miller hunkered down amid speculation that he and the team were on the verge of a nasty split. "I think Bode is in survival mode," Erik Schlopy, a longtime ski team member and one of Miller's closest friends, told me when I reached him at the end of a long day of training. "He's just trying to get through the winter."

On Jan. 12, Miller met with 50 reporters in a school room in Wengen, Switzerland. He had worked out a formula for staying upright, at least momentarily. He issued an apology that was sufficiently remorseful to placate the ski team and sufficiently tepid to preserve his self-respect. "Because of the way I made those comments in the '60 Minutes' interview, it caused a lot of confusion and pain for all those people, and obviously that is nothing I want to do, so firstly I'd like to apologize to them," he said.

The following day, Miller competed in a World Cup combined race. He skied beautifully. At the end of the second slalom run, he appeared to have won the race by more than a second. Moments later, he was told that he had been disqualified for an errant move at the bottom of the course. He was stunned. He protested; his protest was dismissed.

Nobody is discounting Miller's prospects of making a dramatic show at the Olympics. Beyond that, his future as a skier is uncertain. In his book, Miller insists that "fun is the source of all joy." His friends, his coaches and his family report that he is no longer having fun. "It wasn't his goal to become famous, or to have lots of money," says his mother, Jo, from Franconia. "He just loves skiing fast. I think he's still having fun when he's actually going down the course. Other than that, no ... he's really quite unhappy.

"You know, he just bought a 650-acre farm down the road from us, and we're working to get it certified organic," she continues. "The last conversation I had with him, he said he looked forward to coming home and being a potato farmer." It would, she admits, be nice if Bode were to return to New Hampshire with a handful of medals. But she stressed that she and her son both know that winning or losing a few ski races isn't everything. "Up in Franconia, we're a little naïve about the big world out there," she says wearily. "Yeah, Bode makes some mistakes. But you have to remember, he's just a young fella from the hills."

Mark Levine is a contributor to The New York Times Magazine and teaches at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. His collection of poems titled "The Wilds" will be published in April by the University of California Press.
post #2 of 3
This and the recent Rolling Stones article were the best I've read. Maybe I'll try to call him next year if he comes out here and see if we can make some turns.

Thanks for posting that.
post #3 of 3
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:
  Return Home
  Back to Forum: General Skiing Discussion