SOCHI, Russia — The good thing about allowing professionals to take part in the Olympics is that it allows them to compete well into their adult primes. So we get to know them better, to hold on to them a little longer and watch them grow up.
No one has had a more tumultuous and public Olympic life than U.S. skier Bode Miller, the most successful male Alpine skier in U.S. history.
Miller has both dazzled and infuriated the ski community. He has won big and lost in spectacular, juvenile fashion. Through it all, on his skis and in his personal life, he has operated on the razor’s edge, defying convention and taking the unpopular line.
And he is still standing. Miller, who has won five Olympic medals, is back for a fifth Olympics at age 36. On Sunday, he will participate in the men’s downhill at Krasnaya Polyana, fit and determined to become the oldest man in history to win an Olympic Alpine gold medal.
There wasn’t a lot of talk about gold medals when Miller missed all of last season while recovering from microfracture surgery on his left knee. The skeptics figured he was finished as a top contender. But clearly, Miller was far from done.
He rededicated himself to fitness and talked of finding new harmony and motivation in his life. Miller lost 20 pounds, but none of his typical bravado. He raised eyebrows by saying this could be the best season of his career and that he intended to kick butt in Russia.
It was easy to dismiss that as “Bode being Bode.” Then he began showing signs of his old form. Two weeks ago in Kitzbuehel, Austria, Miller announced his intentions with two top-three finishes – a second in a near-flawless Super G and a third place in the downhill.
Miller blew away the field in the training session for that classic downhill, in typical rebel fashion taking a more risky line than his competitors. A mistake halfway down the course cost him in the final, but it was his first top three in a downhill in nearly two years.
“I think I’m in a much better spot this year than I was in 2010,” Miller said Thursday in a U.S. ski press session. “I was pretty tested in 2010, I was way behind from where I started the season. My fitness was very low at the beginning of the season.
“I managed to pull my fitness together by the time of the Olympics,” he said, “but not nearly where I am now. I was very fatigued, I was losing time at the bottom of all those courses.”
He did pretty well for a weary soul. Miller had his finest Olympics in Vancouver, winning three medals, one of each color – a gold in super combined, a silver in super G and a bronze in downhill. He’s one of five men to win Olympic medals in four disciplines.
Of course, Miller was something of an afterthought in 2010, too. As he admits, he wasn’t in the greatest of shape. There was the lingering memory of his embarrassing performance in ’06 at Turin, where he arrived as the American cover boy and left as the disgraced party boy.
Miller admitted that he had skied “wasted” and partied “at an Olympic level.” His skiing reflected it. He didn’t medal, seemingly more interested in playing the bad boy role than rising to the expectations of the world.
He contended, weakly, that there were more important things than winning. There was justified disdain from those who felt what was really being wasted was his enormous natural talent. Later, unhappy with the international ski federation, Miller left the U.S. team and spent two years on his own, touring Europe in a mobile home that was tagged “The Bodemobile.”
Miller, less burdened by expectations, was a more mature competitor in Vancouver. He still skated on the edge of trouble, but made more news on the slopes than in the bars. Here in Russia, he seems even more at ease with his fame as he approaches the end of his career.
Personal tragedy has given him perspective. His wife had a miscarriage a year ago. His brother Chelone, 29, died in April of an apparent seizure believed to be the consequence of a traumatic brain injury suffered in a cycle crash eight years earlier.
“It’s strange,” Miller said. “The Olympics is different every time you come. In 2010, I was really confident, because I felt mentally much stronger than in the past. I felt my experiences carried me through, because my fitness was crap and I hadn’t trained really well and wasn’t racing very well.
“But I felt I had the mental capacity to get over that stuff and still win medals,” he said. “I guess with perspective and age, you see the advantages of being young and naive, a little more excitable. Having that emotional arousal control can be a hindrance at times. At an Olympics, you want to go way past your limits in certain circumstances.
“So you make sure you give it everything you can. In your fifth Olympics, with 400 some World Cups behind you, I do get less nervous, less excited. I’m much more focused. I’m hoping that tradeoff works in my favor.”
Bode Miller, envious of the young, emotional and naive? Admitting he “feels his age?” You wonder if the old man of skiing is playing head games with his younger rivals, lulling them into believing he’ll take a more conservative approach on the hills, too.
Don’t bet on it.
Thursday, on the opening day of training on a 2.2-mile course with a steep descent that has racers quickly reaching speeds of 90 mph, Miller had the fastest time in training. The dastardly downhill at the Rosa Khutor Alpine complex is expected to be one of the fastest ever at the Olympics.
“I’m glad they didn’t dumb it down or take any of the teeth out of it,” Miller said. “Many of our World Cup courses they have made easier. This one is tough, and you have to be willing to take the risks. It’s got everything – high-speed turns, gliding sections and really long jumps.’’
Sounds like the ideal setup for a man who has always loved to spit in the face of danger, to take risks other skiers wouldn’t contemplate. He’s entered in four events, so he has a good chance to add to his Olympic medal count. If he fails, it won’t be because he held back.
Maybe he’ll crash at some point, too. You just never know with this dude. One thing for sure. Love him or hate him, we’re not likely to see another quite like him.