WORDS: Devon O’Neil
Quick, name the American skier who has won the most medals in Olympic history. No, it’s not lingerie panty promoter Julia Mancuso. Nor Picabo Street, Daron Rahlves, Tommy Moe, or Andrea Mead Lawrence. Try Bode Miller. Better question: What odds could you have gotten on the tail of Bode’s 2006 Olympic belly flop that he would someday own five medals? If Bode, now 36, makes the Olympic team for Sochi — and he sat out all of last season to ensure that he would — he will become the second American downhiller to ski in five Winter Games, joining racer turned ski crosser Casey Puckett. Before he bids the circus adieu, hop a ride on the roller coaster that has been Samuel Bode Miller’s Olympic career.
Nagano 1998: Three months after he finishes 11th in his World Cup debut, 20-year-old Bode earns a surprise Olympic berth only to DNF in slalom and GS in Nagano, Japan. The results are par for his rookie season: He completes only two of 12 races on the World Cup circuit.
Salt Lake City 2002: Bode delivers his first defining moment during the downhill portion of the combined at Utah’s Snowbasin Resort, hip checking the snow at 65 mph and careening toward his coaches, seemingly destined for disaster. He somehow rights himself and finishes the run, later calling the recovery a survival instinct. “I felt like if I didn’t do it, I would probably die.” That afternoon, trailing by 2.44 seconds entering two slalom runs, he dominates the field, winning the second run by a whopping 1.18 seconds. His silver medal ends an eight-year Olympic drought by American men. “I’ve never seen anybody ski so fast,” gold medalist Kjetil Andre Aamodt, of Norway, gushes afterward. Bode’s legend grows with a second silver in the GS eight days later, after which he tells the media: “I didn’t really care how I finished. I just knew I didn’t have anything left.”
Torino 2006: Coming off a season that saw him win the World Cup overall title and Super-G and Downhill World Championships, Bode becomes America’s Olympic poster boy — with catastrophic candor. He appears on the cover of magazines, like TIME and Newsweek, and tells “60 Minutes” that he has raced “wasted.” In Newsweek, he calls his financial backers “unbelievable assholes. Rich, cocky, wicked conceited, super right-wing Republicans.” When he fails to medal in any of his five races in Torino (his best finish is fifth in downhill), the media shreds him like a school of piranhas. Bode throws gasoline on the fire, casually reminding everyone that he still “got to party and socialize at an Olympic level.”
2007: When U.S. Ski Team officials discontinue his funding, Bode breaks off on his own and forms an independent squad he calls “Team America.” He hires his own coaches, technicians and PR reps and spends $500,000 a year following the World Cup circuit in a souped-up RV, silencing the haters by winning his second overall title in 2008. He returns to the U.S. Team in the fall of 2009.
Vancouver 2010: Contrary to his 2006 disgrace, Bode enters the Vancouver Olympics on the heels of a winless World Cup season that left him hinting at retirement. Then, like an inconspicuous sedan in the sports world’s rearview mirror, he stunningly skis to three Olympic medals at Whistler — bronze in downhill, silver in super-G, and gold in super combined. After winning his long-awaited first gold, he says he finally escaped the burden that crippled him in 2006, when he felt like a placard for the I.O.C., whose money and corruption he despised. “I let all that stuff go and raced like I was a little kid,” he says.
Sochi 2014: Your guess is as good as ours, but some numbers to keep in mind going in: Bode has either DNF’d or been disqualified from seven of his 15 Olympic races. Of the eight he’s finished, he’s medaled in five.