Bode Miller has dominated this winter’s skiing season through a combination of brilliance, versatility and charisma. Yet the “Bode Miller moment” of skiing’s world championships in Bormio, Italy, came not when the 27-year-old American won his first gold medal, in the super-G two weeks ago, nor when he won his second in the downhill a week later. It came in the combined event, so often the after-thought of alpine championships, which fell between the two victories.
The combined consists of three races: one downhill followed by two slalom. When Miller lost a ski at the top of the downhill course, it should have been all over. But despite travelling at about 75mph when the ski came off, he continued on one ski because, he said casually, “it would take a while to stop anyway”.
Miller almost made it down, too, before collapsing exhausted before the finish line. The crowd loved it, his fellow competitors applauded, but the US coach Phil McNichol was furious.
“That’s not worth ending your season for,” he said. “I don’t care how big his cape is.” McNichol knows he should have saved his breath – you cannot rein in free spirits.
Miller was brought up in the land of free spirits; otherwise known as Franconia, New Hampshire. The region was made famous by The Old Man of the Mountain, a granite outcrop on Cannon Mountain that had formed into the profile of a face. The Old Man was said to represent the ruggedness of the local people, but on May 3 2003, the granite rocks crumbled and overnight the face disappeared.
The principle remains, though in Franconia you do need to be hardy. But in the Miller family home, in the nearby Easton Valley, you had to be even hardier. Running water and electricity were optional extras that did not come with the cabin Miller was raised in.
Woody and Jo Miller reared two sons and two daughters in said cabin. As his brother was called Nathanial Kinsman Ever Chelone Skan Miller, and one of his sisters Genesis Wren Bungo Windrushing Turtleheart Miller, you could say that Samuel Bode Miller got off lightly. Bode (you sound the “e”) had his early schooling at the hands of his mother. Much of his education, though, was in the mountains. From the age of three he was interested in anything that slid, and on Cannon Mountain he discovered the exuberant thrill of catapulting down the icy slopes.
Miller attended school when he was eight, and later enrolled at the Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine, where skiing was high on the curriculum and where the coaches attempted to impose some sort of orthodoxy on Miller’s talent.
Nor was it just as a skier that Miller excelled. His grandfather founded a tennis camp, and Miller became an accomplished player. At soccer, he played for the Easton Aliens, and just three months before his first skiing World Cup race at Park City, Utah, in 1997, he scored the penalty that won his club the New Hampshire Conference Cup.
Miller first made the US ski team in 1996. His new team-mate, the veteran Chad Fleischer, called him the “Modern Day Savage”, and Miller’s talent was rough-hewn. He fell in more races than he finished and although it gave him a reputation of unreliability, the young skier was nevertheless learning his limits.
As well as his technique, he also experimented with his equipment, being the first to try short “hour-glass” skis for racing.
In 1998, Miller made the US Olympic team for Nagano, Japan, but failed to finish his only event, the slalom. His first World Cup podium finish a third in giant slalom at Val d’Isère, France did not come until the 2000-2001 season, but even that winter he was still falling in more races than he was finishing (13 out of 24).
Two days in December 2001, however, changed Miller’s career for ever.
Back in Val d’Isère, he stormed to his first World Cup win before driving across the Alps to Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, where the very next day he won his second. Only two men had done that double before; Italian Piero Gros and the Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark.
Miller could not crown his season with an Olympic title at Salt Lake City. Two silver medals, with blistering final runs in both the giant slalom and the combined, had established the pattern. When Miller sat in second place after the first run of the slalom, a title seemed assured. Instead, he fell twice, but at least he finished.
Two world titles at St Moritz, in the combined and giant slalom, crowned his season last year, but this winter he has extended his repertoire. In a brilliant start to the campaign, Miller demonstrated his versatility by dashing off World Cup wins in all four disciplines, only the second skier ever to do so.
So dazzling was his early season form that when he arrived in Bormio at the start of the current world championships, the word was that Miller was already burnt out. “Just because people keep saying it, doesn’t mean it’s true,” he said, before producing the unarguable evidence. The past two weeks have been pure Miller: in four races, twice he has stood up, and twice he has won. If he stands up on Saturday, in the slalom, you can probably make it three.