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Bode: From hippie to ski rebel

His straight-shooting approach to life and racing has brought Bode Miller fame and infamy.

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published February 10, 2006


He blasts recklessly down the slopes at 85 mph, a blur of contradictions and controversy, an antihero flying in the face of conformity and chasing his own version of the Olympic dream.

You've probably heard the name by now: Bode Miller - America's best hope for Alpine greatness at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, and a perpetual thorn in the side of the U.S. ski program.

Raised by hippie parents in the New Hampshire woods, growing up in a cabin with no electricity or plumbing, he was skiing by 3 and has been blazing an unpredictable path ever since.

"My independence and the fact that my parents gave me a lot of freedom allowed me to think for myself," the double silver medalist from 2002 said before a race in Beaver Creek, Colo., two months ago.

Thinking for himself - and speaking his mind when the spirit moves him - has made Bode the bad boy of the U.S. team and an Olympic-sized enigma.

A year ago, Miller became the first American in 22 years to win the overall World Cup title, yet he mused about skipping the Olympics altogether.

He could be the first American skier to win five Alpine medals in one Olympics but disdains the focus on medal counts.

He covets his privacy but creates distractions with comments that thrust him into the public eye.

Now, in the midst of a recent slump and with competition starting Sunday, the question looms: Will Miller replicate the dominant form of 2005 with his speed-demon, free-wheeling style - or, as he has been known to do, will he fall down trying.

In other words, it's business as usual in Bodeville.

* * *

His wild child style has roots in the northern wilderness of New Hampshire's White Mountains.

His grandparents started a tennis camp nearby, and his father built the family cabin in the tiny town of Franconia (pop. 850), located in the midst of 500 acres of forest. "When you're 6, it was like the most epic playground you can find," he says in the documentary Flying Downhill .

He excelled at soccer and tennis when he wasn't on the slopes, and savored romping through the woods year-round. Miller was homeschooled by his parents through third grade, where his education was more or less freestyle.

On a site devoted to Miller's formative years created by his sponsor, Nike, visitors to joinbode.com are greeted by images of the cabin, barn and even the outhouse Miller, his three siblings and parents used.

You learn this: "Slick river rocks taught him coordination. A frigid house taught him mental and physical toughness. A tricky footbridge taught him that mistakes have consequences. A wood stove taught him that hard work is not optional."

It's all part of the Bode backstory that has taken on almost a mythic quality. He attended public school but was known to skip class frequently, and at 13 enrolled in Maine's Carrabassett Valley Academy to study ski racing. All the way, his rebellious side created headaches for his teachers and coaches, but his talent and determination were undeniable.

He finished 11th in his first World Cup event and made the '98 Olympic team, launching him on his way. Today, he trains with an intense, unorthodox workout. And he excels with a style of skiing he developed dubbed DIY (Do It Yourself), worrying about whatever it takes to go fast rather than textbook techniques.

"I don't master the mountain, I master speed," he wrote in his 2005 autobiography entitled Bode: Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun .

Coaches cringe at his form, but it works.

U.S. women's skier Lindsey Kildow described it to Newsweek : "It's like his upper body is just crazy. It's all over the map. But what his lower body does is incredible. He's always going straight down the fall line. It's by far the straightest line I've ever seen."

Miller, 28, has called his downhill style "the freak-out approach. ... It doesn't have anything to do with good tactical decisions. Freaking out is more just trying to attack the gate, take a really aggressive line."

A line that parallels Miller's full-tilt, straight-shooter approach to life, saying what he thinks no matter what the consequences.

* * *

Like his admission on 60 Minutes last month that he has competed in World Cup events "wasted" from drinking - prompting Miller to pubicly apologize.

Like his statement last year that performance-enhancers should be legalized. It wasn't a case of Miller suggesting he cheats, but a pointed jab at what he sees as hypocrisies in the drug-screening process of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Like his comments in the latest issue of Rolling Stone , suggesting that baseball and cycling superstars Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong have taken performance-enhancing substances.

Like his refusal in December to put his boots back on for a mandatory inspection after a race in Switzerland. Rules require that boots stay on 45 minutes after a race but Miller refused.

He was fined the U.S. equivalent of $762, then threatened to quit the World Cup circuit. But the international ski federation wouldn't budge and the U.S. team wound up paying the fine for Miller.

So it goes. He has achieved stardom and wealth. He enjoys a lucrative Nike deal and the freedom to travel to World Cup events in an RV driven by an old childhood pal, who doubles as chef and official Bode blogger for nbcolympics.com.

He also has grown weary of many things that have come with his success.

"You have to do the whole media push, you have to go through drug testing, keep your boots on an extra 45 minutes," he said. "That stuff sounds small, but it's not why I signed onto the sport."

Miller has been at its forefront since winning silver medals in Salt Lake City in the giant slalom and combined, and logging four straight Top-4 finishes in the overall World Cup title (fourth in 2002, second in 2003, fourth in 2004 and first in '05).

But he has not performed well this season, and is currently fourth in the overall standings. Two weeks ago, he abruptly ended a four-year streak of 136 straight World Cup events to play golf with his brother, recovering from a motorcycle accident. It also gave him a chance to relax and find his bearings.

In fact, Miller seemed to be searching for motivation as the season began.

"Going into the Olympic season this year, I had a lot of misgivings about being the front man for this whole medal-count kind of push the U.S. is on right now," he said. "It's a really terribly unhealthy attitude for sports to have and for kids to see everybody getting behind and pushing it."

He insists he would rather be remembered as a guy who went all-out than for a number of medals, even though winning just one more will make him the most decorated U.S. Alpine skier in history, surpassing eight others with two medals.

"I think this is one of those things where my pride and integrity ... are really important to me and knowing that I did something positive like bringing the Olympic message, the Olympic oath, back to the forefront of people's minds as opposed to this whole medal count," he said.

That's why Miller looks back on Salt Lake City with a sense of fulfillment. "I wanted to put down what I would consider two Olympic efforts," he said. "They both were just epic battles. I was really proud of my effort - even though I made huge mistakes and executed poorly."

Whether the battle will bring him gold now is anyone's guess. But the effort should be Bode-acious.