Bode Miller spread his arms wide and then raised them skyward, accepting adulation and smiling like a man living a boy's dream. Last Saturday evening an ancient cobblestone square in the Italian ski town of Bormio was bathed in spotlights and overrun with spectators, who deliriously crammed between buildings to watch the medal ceremony for the men's downhill race at the Alpine World Ski Championships. Many chanted the familiar Bo-dee! Bo-dee! Bo-dee! Miller's teammate, Daron Rahlves, stood on the second-place platform and at the head of the crowd, U.S. speed coach John McBride wrapped himself in an American flag as if it were a warm blanket. A gold medal hung from Miller's neck, and the ski racing world lay at his feet.
Seven hours earlier the 27-year-old Miller had crushed the best ski racers in the world on Bormio's Stelvio downhill course, a gnarly, twisting beast that begins high above the timber line and ends on a steep hillside overlooking the gentle Frodolfo river that divides the center of Bormio. "Another stellar performance for the big man," said British downhiller Finlay Mickel, who finished 11th. "The legend grows."
And grows. And grows. And grows. Miller's downhill medal was his second gold at this year's worlds (he won the Super G on Jan. 29), the first world championship downhill gold for a U.S. male and the first gold for an American male in any championship downhill since Tommy Moe won a surprise Olympic gold in 1994. Rahlves's silver medal--he was a distant .44 of a second back, and bronze medalist Michael Walchhofer of Austria was .43 behind Rahlves--gave the U.S. its first one-two finish in any Olympic or world championship downhill. "One-two in a world championship downhill is an awesome achievement," said Miller. "Never mind me, personally."
Let's mind him just the same. His downhill gold came at the end of a remarkable three days during which Miller displayed all the talent, joy and contrarian's creativity that come with being Bode.
On Thursday morning, in the downhill portion of the three-run downhill-slalom- combined event, Miller lost his left ski 15 seconds into the run. Then, to the delight of the crowd watching on a big screen at the bottom of the hill, he skied for roughly 90 seconds--over more than a mile of brutal terrain--on one seven-foot-long downhill ski made for speed, not for turning or balance. "There aren't many skiers in the world who could do what he did today," said former U.S. Ski Team coach Bob Beattie.
"I could do it," said Norwegian racer Aksel Lund Svindal, "but not as easy as he did."
Technically, the one-ski act was pointless. Miller said he was hoping to stay upright through the finish (he fell on his butt roughly 45 seconds short) so that he could ski the combined slaloms later in the day, but he was disqualified as soon as he passed a gate without two skis. Artistically, however, the show was a hit. International Ski Federation (FIS) men's World Cup race director Gunter Hujara did not wave Miller off the course and would not have fined him for finishing, because, he said, "this little show ... was a good thing."
Miller was inundated with phone messages and e-mails. "One coach on the East Coast said, 'Bode, I'm having all my racers go up and ski on one ski this week, hoping that someday they can be just like you,'" Miller said, laughing. "I'm like, 'Guys, I DNF'd the race!'"
Miller has always relished the thrill of the moment. He lives for the rush of skiing expertly over simply winning medals, the fun of a long night drinking beers over the safety of a clear head in the morning. Skiing on one ski was no different. "You have to enjoy skiing," Miller said two days later, standing in a frozen field outside the RV that he calls home during the long, European portion of the World Cup season. "It was pretty damn fun to ski a tough downhill course on one ski, regardless of the results. It was just fun."
On Friday, the last day of official training for the downhill, Miller was again working outside the box. FIS rules dictate that the starting order for the race be determined by inverting the results of the last day of training; the fastest qualifier starts 30th, the slowest among the first 30 qualifiers starts first. The purpose is to create race suspense by having the fastest racers start late. (Qualifiers out of the top 30 start from positions 31 and higher.)