Free Skier
To the chagrin of the media, Bode Miller is a skier, not a jock.

By Hans Ludwig

Editor’s Note: The following story appears in Powder’s February 2010 issue, on newsstands now. Given Miller’s near victory in Monday’s Olympic downhill (he missed the gold by .09 seconds, an eyelash in ski racing), we thought it appropriate to post here as well.

In October, Bode Miller announced that his seven-month retirement from racing was over, and that he would be returning to Team U.S.A. Miller had fallen out with the team after the 2006 season, competing on the World Cup for the next two winters with his own Team America one-man squad.

Neither the retirement nor the un-retirement were surprising; Miller had been fighting injuries and had not taken a break in 10 years of World Cup racing, but, at 32 is hardly over the hill. The return to the U.S. team is a little more intriguing: Was he the chastened prodigal son returning to the fold? Or did the team offer Miller the freedom that he wanted in order to re-align themselves with a lucrative sponsorship draw in an Olympic year?



Throughout his career, Miller has earned the contempt of the mainstream national press by being non-cooperative—but there’s something about him, and skiing in general, that big American media can’t handle. The sport doesn’t fit into the same paradigm as football or baseball, but reporters gamely try to apply the same templates and ritual scenarios, and the standard result is tragically inept coverage.

Bill Pennington of the New York Times (apparently taking a break from the golf beat) referred to Miller as newly “compliant” in his return to the U.S. team, and, amazingly, called his ski career “capricious.” While there is no doubt that Miller’s skiing style includes plenty of crashes and DNF’s, he is also the most successful American ski racer of all time. His 31 World Cup victories are tops in U.S. history, and he’s one of only five skiers in the world to ever win World Cup races in all five alpine disciplines. If that’s a capricious career, we should all start praying for capricious snowfall this winter, and more capricious sex lives.

Stacey Cook, a long-time teammate of Miller’s, and the 2008 National Champion in both Downhill and Super-G, says it’s called the White Circus for a reason. “It feels like a double standard in that we have these expectations that are unrealistic for what we do,” she says. “Going 30 feet out of the pipe is crazy—it’s awesome—but going 90 mph down a DH course is crazy as well. We have to be a little reckless just to do this stuff. We have to keep that fearlessness, and that fun, because the consequences…”

If you’re wondering what Miller would have to do earn the respect of the golf specialist at the Times, look beyond the race course. Miller didn’t fail as a skier, not even in the no-medal 2006 Olympics that was portrayed as such a damning failure by sanctimonious experts like NBC’s Bob Costas. He kicked ass that year on the World Cup—despite skiing on a bad knee. Against stiffer competition than at the Olympics, he managed third in the overall World Cup standings, winning two races, standing on the podium eight times, and finishing in the top 10 14 times. But while Miller was able to snag third best in the world on one knee, he failed to be a groveling hypocrite—like a Hollywood star checking into rehab, or a family values congressman admitting that yes, maybe just the tip, but only for a second.

The important thing is that Miller is racing again, and we get to watch. It doesn’t matter if he wins or stuffs it halfway down the course—Miller is guaranteed to pin it, and we’ll get to see things like his insane wall-ride on a DH course safety fence at 70 mph (to second place! in the Hahnenkamm!), or the famous recovery in the downhill at the ’02 Games, where he snagged a tip and then performed what has to be one of the greatest saves of all time on the way to a silver medal.

If Miller rages at the bar the night before, if he feels that he has to drop peyote and get naked in the start shack in order to grease a fast run, we can at least take solace in that we likely won’t have to witness the greatest American ski racer of all time pretending to apologize for the things that make him great. We should just be thankful for the show, and proud that the best skier in the world exemplifies the spirit of our sport.