BODE MILLER SPEED FREAK
America's great Olympic hope likes to go fast, have fun and doesn't care about medals. Inside the wild world of the rebel who won't shut up and can't slow down.
TO LIVE FREE FROM SELF-DOUBT MAY BE THE MOST ENVIable state of being, and perhaps nobody in America is less scared of himself than Bode Miller. Miller, 28, is the great blue-eyed hope of the U.S. ski world, a double silver medalist at the Salt Lake Games and reigning World Cup champion, the first American to hold that title since 1983; there will be no escaping his handsome visage during the Turin, Italy, Winter Olympics, as he is now not only a famous athlete but also a kind of rock star. For all the improbable Olympics talk about "mavericks" and "innovators" who "redefine the rules of the game," Miller has set Alpine racing on its head, and it goes far deeper than image. Then again, the image is pretty good. Miller is Johnny Knoxville as a rosy-cheeked Ski God, a sexy redneck addicted to DIY fun, adrenaline highs and stupid amounts of beer. He skis wasted, he told 60 Minutes in mid-January, a comment that made headlines and almost got him kicked off the team. The worst part was that he had to make a public apology under the demands of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO, and Miller doesn't apologize for nobody.
And then he had to deal with his family. They got concerned that his arrogant attitude might actually he covering up an alcohol problem and even sent Milter's uncle Mike Kenney, a mentor, to Europe to join Miller's jovial and party-loving cousin Chance Stith as a companion during the ramp-up to the Olympics. "I think this controversy is helping Bode focus himself," says his father, Woody Miller. "Bode was in a bit of a funk not knowing what was motivating him, and I think that he's now determined to motivate himself as much as he can."
Here is Miller doing the no-motivation thing with Stith a couple of months ago at 8 P.M. on an early-winter Saturday, up at their family's property in Franconia. a one-supermarket town in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Miller's grandparents founded Tamarack Tennis Camp on these 450 acres, and his entire extended family, well-read hippies who counted themselves out of the world because it isn't challenging or moral enough, live in semi-survivalist mode in ramshackle cabins spread through the land. Anew home for Miller is being built high on another hill nearby, close to Bretton Woods — the ski resort that's footing the bill — "next door to the town junk-bond guy, the one who makes his living dealing crap to unsuspecting people," snickers a friend. But for now Miller spends most of his time at cousin Stith's cabin, a messy, no-heat affair with plywood walls scrawled with former tennis campers' messages, like "Caroline, I can't believe I lost to you, you were up 4-0!" or "Take two nuggets and shove them up her ass." Felix Da Housecat plays on Sirius radio at ear-splitting volume as Miller leafs through a car circular at a table crowded with stuff like fake poo and a beaten copy of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, ostensibly looking for a solid winter car for his sister. "Whoa, there are also some good Dodge Vipers out there that need to be bought by me," he says.
Miller doesn't move around when he talks, sitting at all times with his feet planted squarely on the floor. At six feet two and 210 pounds, with the glorious coloring of a Brazilian model, he's bulky through the bottom, and he's not the kind of guy who would cross his legs anyway. He half-listens to the conversation around him about which states allow smoking in bars, the salubrious effects of Ecstasy and how "Jesse's new boyfriend, this total steroid dude, got all riled up last night at Dutch Treat," says his friend Mike Fanning, guffawing. "I was like, 'I wonder who he wants to kill — there are so many assholes here.' "
Stith, a skier who blew an AGL and now builds snowboarding rails, makes some motions to clean his kitchen, and picks a toothbrush out of the dirty dishes. "Vermont — that's where they invented the toothbrush," he declares, engaging in some casual neighboring-state ribbing.
"Anywhere else it would be called a teethbrush," says Miller, hooting.
This is the way Miller claims to be happiest: hanging with his buddies, shooting the shit. It is also part of what is making someone who could be a historically important skier potentially a mere blip on the radar. Miller says he does not care about winning, and so far this season, he is not. He's now in fourth place in the World Cup behind the other, far less telegenic great American hope, Daron Rahlves. Miller, once considered the best slalom competitor in the world, has failed to finish all but one slalom race this year. "Bode could be the most dominating racer in the history of the sport if he wanted to," says John McBride, the U.S. ski team speed coach. "He says, 'I'm showing up at each race ready to win,' but is he? In my opinion, no. There is no one in the handful of racers who are capable of winning a World Cup who stays out socializing late the night or even the week of the race." He sighs. "Sometimes I think that Bode is not willing to put down tangible goals because he could be held accountable, and it's easier to say you don't have goals than to not meet them. I think he is confused about what he wants."
MILLER, OF COURSE, SAYS THAT there is no confusion at all. The way he sees himself is less Johnny Knoxville and more Jim Morrison, a one-man revolution against the conventions of skiing and the world order. Miller has spent an unusual amount of effort developing specialized gear, a unique training regimen (unicycling, tightrope walking, jumping from stone to stone in the river) and an experimental ski style of sharp-radius turns, a crouching stance and radical boot-leaning-back. But a lot of what makes him win is that at 90 mph in a downhill, he simply does not check speed. A normal human goes as fast as necessary to win at a potentially fatal sport, but Miller goes as fast as possible in every race, like a fearless eight-year-old. He looks like one, too, a Gumby mess with flailing arms and a center of balance impossible to discern, even completing three miles of a downhill race on one ski after he lost the other. Descriptions of his style by ski experts include "like a rodeo rider" and "a cat thrown over an icy driveway." He's "a movement prodigy," says Hermann Maier, the Austrian ski champion known as "the Hermannator." Miller has a higher rate of biting it than any World Cup champion in history and has failed to finish or been otherwise disqualified from a third of all races.
"I don't care about what other people's judgments come down to — I care what my judgments come down to," says Miller. "And the way I judge myself is not on how many World Cups I can win in a row. Now, people think I'm fucking around about this, that I'm just saying it because I'm stubborn. But if you look at my past results to see if they back up what I'm saying, the fact is they do. I've been crashing forever, and coaches are tike, 'What are you doing? If you just backed off for a bit you'd be fine.' I'm like, What, you think I didn't know that?" But am I going to back off? No. Because I like to do it this way, and I don't give a fuck if I crash. I am measuring myself on the five gates where I make it, and how sweet those gates are."
On one of the rare mild winter days in Franconia, Miller is stalking around a golf course with his friend Richard Newby as he shares this somewhat airy concept. His girlfriend, Karen Sherris, a twenty-two-year-old recent college grad from northern Alberta who resembles a young Christy Turlington in track pants, lags behind. The two met online one year ago, on the LaBatt dating site. He was togged on under "Sam," his first name, and didn't say much about himself except he liked to ski. "When people ask us how we met, we play it off like, Through friends,' " says Sherris with a giggle, "because a lot of people think, 'Oh, that's so weird,' and even I think that — if others tell me they met online, I'm like, 'Ewww.' "
"Why is it weird?" says Miller. "It's not weird."
The three of them circle the green, with Miller moving ever farther in the lead. Sherris gets bored and Newby smokes an awful lot of pot. Miller drives his cart around like a maniac. "You know, I'm going to quit racing after this season," he says at one point, nonchalantly. Um, excuse me? "I don't know if I want to do it anymore, and I won't do something I don't want to do."
"You know, even when you're not doing anything, you actually are doing something," says Newby, a dry son of a bitch with a partially paralyzed face and a long, thin braid snaking down his back from his baseball cap. He takes another hit of his pipe.
"If I could wish one thing for anyone, it would be to not have to do anything his entire life — to just go along and when you feel like doing something, do it," says Miller, nodding his head, "Since I have financial freedom, I bet I could probably hold out doing nothing for a while. I'll just socialize, play golf, tennis, soccer, go hiking, camping and partying." He peers in the distance. "Whoa — am I actually on the green?"
"Well, I can't tell myself, actually," says Newby. He slips the pipe into his pocket. "Better stop smoking, I guess."
At the next tee, Miller takes a wide swing. The ball soars across the light-blue sky. "Goddamn!" he yells. "I am playing a fucking good game today!"
FAR MORE OFTEN THAN NOT DOING anything, though, Miller simply refuses to do the regular thing, which sometimes seems like more trouble than it's worth. Last year, he claimed that he wasn't even going to the Olympics: "I figured if I didn't go I would have to deal with a shit storm anyway, so it's not like I was avoiding anything by not going," he says of his capitulation (in fact, at the same time he was blustering about not going to the games, he was cutting sponsorship deals that required him to attend). He's bragged of using his World Cup medal to stabilize a toilet seat, and in December he was fined $762 for refusing to take a routine boot-height test after an Austrian race. He's not exactly a team player: Miller trains at home over the summer rather than with the U.S. ski team and travels separately on tour in his own RV driven by a friend — he says maintaining a consistent level of comfort in his own eating and sleeping quarters gives him an edge.
In a rare nervous moment, he also explains that he worries about somebody slipping a performance-enhancing drug in his drink, leading to him being framed for substance use. After all, he has attacked almost every aspect of the U.S. ski federation — the suits, the coaches and, particularly, the drug policy, which has to be his number-one pet peeve. "The drug-regulation system is a weird, bad system, and all I'm asking is that we talk about it," he says. "Right now, if you want to cheat, you can: Barry Bonds and those guys are just knowingly cheating, but there's all sorts of loopholes. If you say it has to be knowingly, you do what Lance [Armstrong] and all those guys do, where every morning their doctor gives them a box of pills and they don't ask anything, they just take the pills. Yeah, they're not knowingly taking any substance, they don't fucking ask what it is, but they are sure as shit taking it." [Both Bonds and Armstrong have denied such allegations.]
Speaking truth to power is the Miller family way, though few in this far-out clan express their rebel thoughts with quite the same antagonism. His grandparents are skiers from way back: His grandmother, a Berkeley grad and ski racer, met his grandfather, a naval officer on leave from World War II, in Sugar Bowl, California. They moved to New Hampshire after the war, buying the Tamarack 450 acres for $10,000 to build a ski lodge and tennis camp. Their daughter Jo married one of the tennis instructors, a University of Vermont medical student and the founder of the Turtle Party (The United Resolution to Love Earth), who soon dropped out of school to build a home three-quarters of a mile off the land's main road (they split up when Bode was six but remained living on the land with Woody's new wife and family). Bode grew up without a phone or electricity, cooked with wood, tapped sugar maples and used an outhouse across a stream and up a hill.
"I guess one way of looking at it is my full name is John Airheart Wood Miller II," says Woody, a sliver of a guy with a bushy beard that takes up most of his face. "When I was growing up, my father was a doctor, and his father was a doctor, and they had me pegged as being another doctor. I had chosen the name Woody, and my dad was trying to get me to switch to John. I never wanted to be John. So I knew when I had kids I'd want them to be whomever they wanted to be."
The kids were home-schooled, or rather, as Miller calls it in his autobiography Bode: Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun, "no-schooled." By five, he was spending almost every winter day on Cannon Mountain, an icy, steep slope in an area that has some of the highest wind gusts in America, up to 230 mph. Everyone around him skied — grandparents, uncles, his dad. Miller was in top physical shape as a teenage tennis state champion and star soccer player when he was sent to Carrabassett Valley Academy, a Maine racing school where the coaches did not consider him one of the more promising students. "Everyone kept telling me my technique was so crappy and noneffective," says Miller, "that I had to be like, 'Fine, don't worry about me, then, I'll go by the wayside and/all have not lost anything." In his senior year, he asked his Karep to watch him on a raceboard to demonstrate that there was an element of snowboarding that needed to be brought to elite skiing. The rep gave him the K2 Four ski, a short, hourglass "cheater" model that was being marketed to beginning skiers at resorts. In 1995, as an unranked eighteen-year-old, he was the first racer to take shaped carving skis to the Junior National Championships; one year later, at the Nationals, he came in third in slalom, thus automatically qualifying for the U.S. ski team. "Somebody would've raced on those skis eventually, but at that point nobody got it except Bode, and he was pretty young to be the one who figured it out," says two-time Alpine racing Olympian Edie Thys.
Since then, it's been pretty much all about Miller up in Franconia. "Don't get me wrong: Where Bode's gotten is all his own work, but it's three generations of our family working this hard on skiing that allowed him to get to this level," says Nate Huber, another cousin. For the past few years, Miller has made about $3 million in endorsements annually (a hefty sum for a top skier, who typically does not make close to million in his career), and he has supported the family wherever possible, even buying the tennis camp to alleviate any mortgage responsibilities. "He helps out as much as he can," says Huber. As much as Miller is currently enjoying gala benefits like the Ski Ball, where a golf game with him was auctioned for $13,000, or all-expenses-paid stays in New York, where he dines at expensive restaurants with Sherris and dances to electronica at clubs, or even his new fancy Bretton Woods house, he says he will move back when he quits racing and raise his family in a survivalist atmosphere. "I can take $15,000 a year and raise kids on that," he says. "Later they'll figure out that I've got millions, but hopefully they'll have the values to say, 'So what?' I found out when I was a teenager that my dad didn't have to live the way we lived, that he was in medical school beforehand, but it didn't matter to me — I still thought it was fucking sweet up there."
The sun is setting when Miller finally gets around to working out on a free-weights machine in a barn on the property. He swigs his energy drink — "Mmm, I love doping," he jokes — as a crowd gathers to watch him work out: a few uncles and his sister with her little girl wearing an I LOVE DAD shirt. For the first time, Miller's affect becomes soft and engaging. "Look how long your hair is growing," he coos to his niece. "Soon you're going to need to make some serious styling decisions." He asks his sister if she needs him to cut some wood. "Mom says we need twice as much," she says. "So we'll cut what you got in half," says Miller, laughing.
Miller remains mellow until there's talk of his younger brother Chelone. Three weeks earlier, Chelone's Honda dirt bike popped out from under him while he was scoping hunting spots on a potholed mountain road. He suffered severe brain trauma and was in a coma for seven days. "The implications immediately were intense: 'Oh, he might be retarded; oh, he might never come back,' " says Miller. Today, doctors have removed a slice from his skull to release some pressure, but the prognosis is for a full recovery. "Now, would Chelone have been less happy riding his motorcycle with a helmet on?" he asks. :Yeah, a little bit. It's more run to ride a bike without a helmet. You've got the wind in your hair. This was a risk he took, and perhaps he took less risks in other areas, because that's the way people are — it's unusual that you find a race-car driver who also spends his free time base-jumping or having sex with prostitutes in Amsterdam with no rubbers on. But is the whole goal of life preserving your life as long as you can? No. The goal is to enjoy your life, to challenge yourself, to sometimes make stupid decisions, which are sometimes tun and sometimes idiotic and sometimes just a big, fat mistake that you regret. But the reason for it all is enjoyment; that's the reason for life. It is not that I don't recognize the danger in ski racing but that I don't fear the consequences. I mean, what's the worst that can happen? You die, I guess. You're all alone and you don't know anything. You're all done."
Miller goes as fast as possible in every race, like a fearless eight-year-old: "I don't care if I crash."