© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2002
PARK CITY, Utah -- At the bottom of the mountain is disappointment. And, as usual, Bode Miller is in a hurry to get there.
Losers in Alpine skiing generally aim for inconspicuous. When a run goes awry, they slink off to the side of the course and try to tiptoe in skis.
Yet here comes Miller. He just missed one of the first gates in Saturday's slalom run and left all hope for glory behind.
Common sense says to get off the course, preferably within range of a bus stop. Miller, instead, goes back up the mountain. He reaches the errant gate, skis around it and belatedly completes the course in 25th place. The crowd goes wild. Miller offers a small grin.
Now we have the full picture of Samuel Bode Miller. Not just the wild man who came from behind to win a pair of silvers in the combined and giant slalom. That part of Miller, 24, is there for all to see.
This is the nonconformist in Miller. The child taught to think for himself. To follow his own path, to choose his own destiny.
The competitor who can ruin his best chance for gold, miss out on an opportunity to become the first American with three Alpine medals and still leave the mountain with the bearing of a champion.
"That's racing. You've got to be willing to risk it," Miller said. "When you're willing to risk it, you know the circumstances. You can come out with gold or you can come out with nothing."
Even if his chance this month to become an American hero has passed, Miller remains an American original.
To understand the forces that have shaped this unique life, we could begin with tofu. And kerosene lamps. Or maybe we start with a self-made cabin without running water or electricity in the back woods of New Hampshire.
This is where Jo and Woody Miller raised their family. Woody dropped out of medical school to follow the free-spirited Jo into a life free of consumer madness. Or some such flower-power ideal.
The Millers brought four children into the world from those beginnings. Bode (pronounced BO-dee) may sound like an unconventional name, but he got off lucky. There is younger sister Genesis Wren Bungo Windrushing Turtleheart Miller. Or his little brother Nathanial Kinsman Ever Chelone Skan Miller.
The family would read at night using kerosene lamps, and they grew vegetables to go along with repeated dinners of tofu. It was miles to the nearest area of civilization, so the children learned early to ski.
From this perspective, the independent streak that has defined Miller's career is clear to see.
Just ask the English teacher at Carrabassett Valley Academy, a prestigious prep school for skiers in Maine. Miller got in because his mother was friends with the headmaster. His tuition was paid by scholarship, and he moved in with a family near the school.
It was Miller's first structured environment and he sometimes chafed at the restrictions. Weeks from graduation, he became engaged in a battle of will with an instructor. His term paper lacked the proper research. Miller refused to change it and was given an incomplete for the course.
He still does not have his high school diploma.
Miller took the same headstrong attitude to the slopes. He may be as fast as any human on skis, but he has no brakes. Early on, one U.S. ski official said Miller had the confidence of an idiot.
Recently, the line between stubbornness and confidence ceased to overlap. He still used an unorthodox style, but Miller had become technically proficient to put his speed to good use. Suddenly, instead of laughing at him, competitors were trying to emulate him.
Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt has compared him to Alberto Tomba. U.S. ski official Bill Marolt compared him to Jean-Claude Killy.
"He's revolutionizing the way of skiing," Aamodt said. "I've never seen anybody ski fast the way he is doing. He has no limits."
Which brings us back to Saturday morning at the Deer Valley Resort. Miller began the final heat in second and was virtually assured a record third medal if he completed the course. Instead, he went for broke.
"You've got to be willing to risk it," Miller said. "It's one race. You want to perform, but if you don't, you have to be able to accept it."
The gate Miller missed was the one he targeted a trouble spot. He thought if he hit it faster than anyone, first place would be assured.
"I wanted it to be a great race. I wanted to push it hard," he said. "If I had been willing to back off, it wouldn't have been that tough to make it down and maybe make it to fifth place or fourth place, or even first. But I wasn't going to make that decision today."
Instead, Miller did it his way. Fast and furious.
As it turns out, he left without a medal.
And, also, without regret.