Bode Miller: Skiing's baddest boy comes good at last

He always had the talent, but failed to deliver. Now Bode Miller, the hard-partying downhill racer from the backwoods, is on top of the world
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The Independent Online

For one of sport's biggest braggarts – a home-schooled hippy turned skiing megastar who rocked the discipline he loved – Bode Miller seemed subdued as he crossed the line in Vancouver. The American had just skied the run of his life in the decisive slalom stage of the Super-Combined event, but when he looked at the clock, there was no hollering or fist-pumping. He breathed deeply and looked to the heavens; exhausted but, above all, relieved. By winning his first Olympic gold medal, Miller had completed one of sport's most remarkable comebacks – and rewritten his place in its annals – months after his career had apparently crashed in a snow cloud of beer and recriminations. "I wanted to win," he said simply in the finish area on Sunday afternoon. "I needed it."

The shiniest addition to Miller's groaning trophy cabinet plants him in skiing's all-time hall of fame. No man has ever won four medals in the alpine skiing events at a single Olympics. Miller now has three, having already bagged bronze and silver in the Downhill and super-G at Vancouver. An almost matchless all-rounder, he is one of only two men who have won medals in four different disciplines. In the twilight of his career – Miller is 32 – the daredevil skier who nearly threw it all away has become a true Olympic great.

But Miller's medals tell only part of a life story that has already spawned an autobiography and a film (expect more to come). It begins in Franconia, a tiny town in New Hampshire's White Mountains, where Samuel Bode Miller's parents Woody and Jo lived in a house without electricity or running water, celebrated the solstice and named their youngest son Genesis Wren Bungo Windrushing Turtleheart.

Miller ran free in the woods around the house and, from the age of two, skied even freer at nearby Cannon Mountain. From the start, he applied himself with a reckless zeal and need for speed that seemed at odds with his log-cabin upbringing. When it was put to him, in a 2006 interview, that winners are more often the products of pushy parents, Miller said: "Those are the kids who burn out and end up being counterculture hippies ... that's sort of the opposite from me." When he was 14, Miller joined a ski academy, where coaches winced at a skiing style that wasn't so much unusual as plain wrong. Miller leaned back on his skis – a mortal sin – to generate speed, but at the expense of control. Arms flailing, skis all over the hill, he was as well-known for his crashes as his wins – and wowed onlookers with his physics-defying ability to stay on his feet. A former teammate called Miller the "Houdini" of recoveries.

But his balls-out, back-seat style, which he refused to change, combined with a superhuman athleticism, gave Miller a hit rate that was high enough, in 1996, to win him a spot on the US ski team. Still, the cowboy in a skinsuit refused to conform to the strictures of professional racing: more likely to be found in the bar than the gym, he horrified coaches by refusing to ski anywhere but at the very edge of control. In Bormio in 2005, when Miller lost a ski 20 seconds into a Super-G event, he risked serious injury by continuing on one ski – because he could. The crowd loved it; the team bigwigs were furious.

In the late Nineties, when Miller turned up at races with the kind of parabolic, shaped skis that were already revolutionising recreational skiing by making it easier to turn, the Alpine school of skiing purists reacted as if he proposed to ride the course on a snowboard. Miller didn't so much attack the mountains as the very orthodoxy of a sport steeped in tradition. But in that respect, too, Miller was successful – shaped skis quickly became the standard.

And then it nearly ended with a massive wipeout and a destroyed knee at the 2001 World Championships in St Anton in Austria. While recovering from surgery, Miller discovered his team had stopped paying his expenses. Unbowed, he returned to his native woods to rehabilitate in a gym that comprised a home-made weights machine, a loaded wheelbarrow, and a unicycle.

It worked; Miller was back on the team in time for the 2002 Olympics at Salt Lake City. Planting a pole in the public consciousness with characteristic aggression, he stomped on the second tier of the podium with silver medals in the Giant Slalom and Combined events. The success turned him into an all-American hero whose raw talent, leading man features and playful, screw-them attitude had magazines like Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated queueing up to make him the cover boy for a sport that had been crying out for an injection of cool.

For a while, Miller balanced his new celebrity status with the demands of the sport, winning two gold medals at the World Championships in 2003 and a string of World Cup titles in 2004 and 2005. But then, on the eve of the 2006 Olympics in Turin, he started to wobble. Starting to buy in to his own cult, he gave a masterclass in brattishness on the CBS news show 60 Minutes. "If you ever tried to ski while you're wasted," he said. "It's not easy ... it's like driving drunk, only there's no rules about it in ski racing."

Miller did nothing to endear himself to a growing crowd of critics in Turin. Despite promising much and talking the talk (and bad-mouthing teammates), he failed to win anything. But he told reporters he had enjoyed "an awesome two weeks" because he "got to party and socialise at an Olympic level". No sooner had Miller been crowned the king of his sport than he was dethroned by a mob of writers and members of the skiing fraternity who saw his off-slope boozing and apparent on-slope apathy as a violation of the Olympic spirit. For some inside and outside of the US, Miller had also come to symbolise all that was offensive about stateside sporting swagger. They made puns on "Miller Time". One commentator called him "the biggest bust in Olympic history".

Miller deeply resented the backlash, writing in his autobiography: "The role-model Nazis of the left and right, the political- and moral-correctness police who demand that top athletes all behave like the people they wish they'd grown up to be – I say screw them." But if the bad press had shaken Miller, it didn't always show. He continued to win races. By now he had refused to travel with the US team, preferring instead to kick back with a beer in his pimped-out RV. In 2007, he quit to form his own team, for which he would ski as an independent. Sponsors followed and, for a while at least, so did success. He ended the 2008 World Cup season as overall champion.

But last year, Miller started to wobble in a big way. In the worst season of his career, he barely managed a podium finish, let alone a victory. Dogged by injuries, he took an extended break and admitted "the fire goes away after a while". His detractors, whose ranks had neither shrunk nor quietened since 2006, declared him "burned out". Miller had a daughter, Neesyn Dacey, born in 2008, and admitted he was contemplating retirement. It would mean going out with a whimper as probably the best skier never to have won an Olympic gold medal.

But the master of the 80mph recovery refused to fall. Aged 32, and after months out of the sport with an ankle injury he picked up playing volleyball, Miller swallowed his pride. The US team and its most difficult son were reconciled last September. Miller trained hard – his own way – but arrived in Vancouver an underdog. If he was going to succeed, it would come down to the heart and willpower that had become his trademark.

After the downhill stage of the super-combined on Sunday, he was beaten up, exhausted and, worryingly, in seventh place. The awesome Norwegian racer, Aksel Lund Svindal, had a massive lead of almost a second over Miller. Teammates said the American was unable to speak during the lunch break. Gold looked out of reach. But with his cries from his coach of "Come on, Bode, let's go now, kid!", Miller flew out of the gates like a greyhound after a hare, immediately winning back an overall lead in the race of his life. When Svindal straddled a gate, ending his race, Miller knew victory – and that elusive gold medal – was his.

"I feel pretty old," said the new, grown-up, more modest Miller when asked if he could now finally rack his skis. "I don't know what my plan is. Having quit once, I came back for a reason, and this was the reason. I feel good, and when I race like I have here, it's so much fun to do. I'd feel pretty stupid to give up if I could continue." Few would bet against him in tonight's Giant Slalom or the Slalom on Saturday. "Bode Miller is crazy," said a fellow veteran, the Austrian Benjamin Raich. "He is so hard to understand, but I know this: When he is on, he is the perfect skier."