Sidelined by knee surgery and largely out of the spotlight for 18 months, Bode Miller was no less brash on the eve of his return to competition this fall. Asked his expectations as he girded for a run at his fifth Winter Olympics, the 36-year-old Miller said: “The plan is to kick [butt].”
In his three World Cup races since that bold declaration, though, Miller hasn't even been a factor, finishing no better than 16th in the giant slalom at Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27, and the downhill and Super-G at Canada's Lake Louise this past weekend.
But if ever there were a skier who demands attention regardless of how calamitous his previous performance, it is Miller, a preternaturally gifted athlete whose competitive DNA defies convention and common sense.
Win, crash or finish hopelessly in arrears, Miller is thrilling to watch — whether hurtling full-tilt down an icy course on a second giant-slalom run to vault from seventh to a silver medal, as he did at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics; or racing on one leg, as he did at Bormio, Italy, in 2005 upon losing a ski 16 seconds into the combined until gravity sent him into a slide.
At the same time, Miller can be difficult to cheer, as many found during the 2006 Turin Olympics, where he completed just two of his five events, failed to win a single medal yet declared his Games a success because he had partied “at an Olympic level.” As a consequence the United States' most decorated Olympic skier is more beloved in Europe than at home.
Eight years later, he's seeking a spot on the Sochi-bound United States ski team not to win hearts or medals — indifferent to the spoils of his triumphs, he recently tweeted a photograph of a batch of chicken wings marinating in one of his trophies — but because he believes he can still be competitive despite a surgically repaired left knee.
“I've made plenty of mistakes; I've done tons of stupid things. I've had plenty of awful races, and I've had a bunch of really amazing races,” Miller said during an interview with U.S. Olympic reporters this fall. “I wouldn't change anything.”
Miller has won two overall World Cup championships, 33 World Cup races and five Olympic medals. For a nearly four-year stretch, he held the record for most consecutive World Cup starts (136) — a testament to his versatility, competing in all five disciplines, and all the more impressive given the unchained fury with which he attacks his races.
But after undergoing microsurgery on his left knee in spring 2012, Miller announced he would skip the 2013 World Cup season to fully heal in time for one final Olympics before retiring.
In many respects, he has returned a changed man: leaner most notably, having shed 20 pounds to get down to his current 205.
It's a tradeoff, concedes Forest Carey, head coach of the U.S. Alpine Multi-team, who has worked with Miller for more than 20 years. Carrying less weight eases the pounding on Miller's knees, but it stands to undercut his performance in the downhill and super-G, skiing's “speed disciplines,” given basic physics. A boulder tumbles down a mountain much faster than a rock, after all.
Miller has also had turmoil in his personal life, currently involved in two child custody court battles. Nonetheless, he projects the image of a man at peace with his decisions and an athlete who feels he has nothing left to prove.
“It's what I love to do, and I'm good at it,” Miller said, asked what drives him. “It's a perishable, being a ski-racer. Until you're rotten and shriveled up, you keep going. I'm pretty shriveled up, but I'm not all the way rotten. At least not yet.”
But after three races, it's far from clear whether Miller's best, at 36, is good enough.
“We're still in a holding pattern,” said NBC skiing analyst Steve Porino, a former U.S. Ski Team member, when asked to assess Miller's World Cup results so far this fall.
Under a strictly clinical analysis, Porino says, he would give Miller no shot at winning a slalom or giant slalom race again, given the dominance of 29-year-old U.S. skiing star Ted Ligety, the four-time reigning World Cup giant slalom champion. But Porino has seen enough of Miller's feats not to count him out.
“Bode will forever suspend my disbelief,” Porino said. “He has come from zero to hero so often it gives you whiplash.”
But at this stage of Miller's career, those attributes may not be enough to add to his Olympic resume. Assuming he makes it to the starting gate in Sochi, it's a safe bet he'll make it interesting.
“If you ask his competitors, every one of those guys will not turn away until Bode has finished,” Porino said. “Even those guys are a little afraid that Bode can do the impossible.”