Bode Miller: Downhill hellraiser

Bode Miller loves to party when he's not hurtling down the piste, but the maverick skier with the rock star lifestyle is on top of the world
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The Independent Online

The world's most controversial skier lies on the bed of his luxury motorhome, a scantily clad girl on each side, and a smile on his face. Waiting for breakfast, his personal chef pours him a hard liquor aperitif. He downs it in one. The tumbler carries the inscription: "I hope you're as hot when I'm sober." Welcome to the world of Bode Miller. Except all is not as it seems.

Bode – it rhymes with roadie – is a 30-year-old American, a 6ft 2in natural athlete with movie-star appeal and a bad-boy reputation. He is involved in one of the closest-run denouements to a season his sport has seen. And, despite the scene with the groupies and the booze, he is more serious about his job than ever.

Over the next month, the 41-race World Cup season (in five disciplines at 20 resorts between October and March) will reach its climax. Three races later this week in Kvitfjell, Norway, will be followed by a stop in Slovenia, then a final meeting in Bormio, Italy, from 12 to 15 March.

Miller, the tour's undisputed maverick and its hottest draw, leads the overall standings by a whisker after last weekend's races in Whistler, Canada. But, in a neck-and-neck battle, Miller's points tally (1,103) is under threat from Benjamin Raich, 29, Austria's latest "iceman" (1,058), and Didier Cuche (998), a Swiss who, like Miller, has a penchant for the speed disciplines – downhill and Super-G.

Miller is a rarity in that he races, and has won, in all disciplines: slalom, giant slalom and combined are the others. "We've got an exceptional fight unfolding," says Nick Fellows, a former British racer who works at the heart of the tour as the host of Channel 4's weekly World Cup coverage. "Often by this stage, there's one athlete way out ahead. Now, it's still everything to play for.

"If Bode makes one screw-up, he could let the others in. He's normally as visible in the bars as on the slopes, but he's shut himself right down to focus. No alcohol. Solitary confinement. He's up for this is a big way."

Miller himself admits that the title race is too close to call. The points still on offer (100 for each race win, 80 for second, down to one for 30th) mean the margins between the leading trio are tiny. "I know what you want to know, how the overall race is going to go," Miller said at the weekend. "I have no answers."

He shot to international prominence as the hick from rural New Hampshire who won two Olympic silvers at Salt Lake in 2002. His genius lay in full-thrust unorthodoxy. He might crash, but for the first time here was a major name who would get up and carry on.

He was still laid-back, as befits someone raised by hippy parents, Woody and Jo. (They named one of their daughters Genesis Wren Bungo Windrushing Turtleheart). He grew up in a mountain log cabin with no plumbing, mains electricity or phone. As a kid, he played tennis and football (soccer) and he skied. But with fame, he shot from the lip. He drank. He partied. He had appetites for all the benefits of fame. He still does. Witness his skispace.com website, a networking portal where fans – many of them attractive women – flock to sign up.

Miller won two golds and a silver at the 2003 World Championships, two more golds in 2005, and took the overall World Cup crown the same year in 2005. More than the Olympics, or World Championships, the World Cup is the best gauge of the most consistent, top-level skiers.

Then in 2006, in an infamous interview for 60 Minutes, he suggested he had skied while drunk ("wasted" was the word he used). And months later, he flunked at the Olympics. That was the damning verdict from a US media unhappy with one fifth place and one sixth from Miller's five events.

It did not help that he was pictured in a Sestriere nightclub with a Playboy Playmate, Tina Jordan, flicking the bird to a cameraman. Or that his own verdict on the Games was: "I just did it my way. I'm not a martyr, and I'm not a do-gooder. I just want to go out and rock. And man, I rocked here."

A Washington Post columnist, in a typical riposte, wrote: "The point is that he acted like he didn't try, and didn't care. Failing is forgivable. Getting fatter on beer while you're here is not."

Fast forward to May 2007 and Miller's announcement that after 11 years he was leaving the US ski team to go it alone. The authorities were fed up with non-conformism and partying. Miller was fed up with restrictions on his private life and training. So he started his own team – Team America – with himself as the sole racer. He went back to his camper van, and his own agenda for 2007-08.

Last month he became America's most successful all-time skier, overtaking Phil Mahre's career record of 27 race wins in the World Cup. A victory in Val-d'Isère earlier this month – when The Independent went to see him in action – took Miller to 30. "At this point in my career, [the US ski team] weren't able to provide the kind of focused and unique individual programme that I needed to be at my best," he says. "If I was going to continue to race, then I needed to take responsibility for that situation and control it as much as I could."

Miller is only too aware of his image as an indulgent playboy and uses it in an outrageously satirical spoof video (which can be viewed at skispace.com, see panel) in which he sends up perceptions of his lifestyle. It is one way Miller has lampooned his critics.

In fact, in seeking independence, he has found fresh responsibility, not least for a £100,000-a-month payroll of employees, and a Bode-centred business that relies on his success.

"Everybody else gets very concerned with my public image and with how people perceive me," he says. "I really just don't care that much. Everybody thinks that I'm confused about things, or I speak out of anger or from being provoked. I'm not in turmoil or anything. I just don't care that much [what anyone thinks]."

He shrugs off the brickbats about his gung-ho technique and lifestyle alike. Mahre has been critical of both. Miller has responded that objections to his speed-over-style approach are "confusing truth with beauty. Perfect form may be beautiful, but in ski racing winning times translate as truth."

To understand Miller's appeal, watch him ski. In a race in 2005, a ski popped off but he continued hurtling downhill on one leg for almost two minutes. In Kitzbühel last month he "half-piped" a fence at around 70mph. These and many other incidents can be found on YouTube.

The danger element is attractive to fans. "It's one of the few sports where it's real death, or glory," says Fellows. "These guys are the modern-day gladiators. There probably isn't a guy in the top 10 who hasn't been away at some stage after an accident to be rebuilt."

Exhibit A: the reigning World Cup champion, Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal, had his season wiped out in November by a crash in Colorado. He broke several facial bones and suffered a six-inch gash from his groin to his abdomen.

Miller's own most significant accident was a 60mph tumble in 2001 that damaged a knee so badly that there was talk that his career was over. He took a year to recover fully, but has achieved idol status since, especially in Europe. Asking him questions during a walk between venues at Val-d'Isère is an exercise in distraction as he is mobbed by fans.

"Everyone wants to watch the Bode show," says Finlay Mickel, Britain's No 1 skier. "When he comes out the gate, you have no idea whether he's going to win, fall over, lose a ski and go on. You just know he'll keep racing.

"He's one of the most naturally gifted racers we've seen. And there hasn't been anyone with such a following since [Italy's Olympic-winning firebrand] Alberto Tomba."

Miller has yet to decide whether or not to ski at the 2010 Winter Games, saying only that if the hype "is too negative, I won't do it".

One day, he imagines returning to New Hampshire to run an organic farm. And if that's too small potatoes for his critics, so what?

Channel 4's World Cup Skiing is on Sunday mornings and Monday nights until the end of the season.

'I can't see anything. This is going to be dangerous'

In this transcript from Bode Miller's latest video, he lampoons his critics as much as himself, satirising the perception that his new solo set-up is more about cash and a playboy lifestyle than success.

Miller voiceover: "The decision to move away from the [US] ski team has also allowed me to be quite a bit more aggressive with my sponsorships. I've been able to pick up a lot of new sponsorships and we've moved into a bunch of new categories. We've been very aggressive and we've had a lot of success."

Cut to Miller in front of mirror, with a tailor sewing ever more logos on to an already crowded racing suit.

Agent [on phone to perspective clients]: "Bode Miller and [high-carb food] is a perfect fit ... he loves Pizza Hut ... he lives on Burger King ... I had a Fribble [milkshake] at Friendly's with him two days ago..."

Miller dons a ski mask (pictured) where the logo – for a feminine hygiene cream – fills the visor, entirely obscuring his view.

Agent [to client]: "Who cares what he thinks? This [logo] is prime real estate. Nobody in the industry has ever had something like this. When you think feminine itch, you're thinking Bode Miller anyway."

Miller: "I can't see anything."

Agent [to client]: "No, he looks great. Send the contracts. We have a deal. And send some product as well." [Then to Miller]: "What's up, man?"

Bode: "I can't see anything. This is going to be dangerous."

Agent: "I wouldn't worry so much about the danger, just get out there and ski. You look great. Couple more logos on here and we'll be good."

www.skispace.com/media.aspx

Bode on the web

Bode Miller with two groupies: www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gSwL-qhLZw

Skiing down the side of the safety fence at 70mph: www.youtube.com/watch?v=XW4Ja-XF9Ow

His famous "one ski" run at Bormio in 2005: www.youtube.com/watch?v=__Faa87IQhk

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