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Back on the Edge
December 11, 2006
Nine months after letting down the U.S. team at the Winter Olympics--and appearing not to care--Bode Miller is fit, fast and focused on winning World Cup races
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December 11, 2006

Back On The Edge

Nine months after letting down the U.S. team at the Winter Olympics--and appearing not to care--Bode Miller is fit, fast and focused on winning World Cup races

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He could be gone by now. Bode Miller could have been embarrassed by his 2006 Olympic medal shutout, humbled by the bilious criticism heaped on him by the media for partying too much while winning too little (and seeming to care even less) in Turin, and chastened by a set of onerous rules imposed on the U.S. Ski Team last summer specifically to address his behavior. He could have slunk back to his native New Hampshire, the poster child for self-indulgence, never to be seen or heard again. It would have been a logical finish to a skiing career that has been as tumultuous as it has been transcendent.

Except that Miller does not abide by conventional logic and will accept no one else's terms for his departure. "When I retire," he said last week, "you'll know because one day I just won't come to races anymore."

That day has clearly not arrived. Last Friday afternoon, on an icy mountainside above the swank Colorado resort of Beaver Creek, Miller won the Birds of Prey Downhill, centerpiece of the annual U.S. stop of the Alpine World Cup circuit. Attacking a perilous course through light snowfall and shaking off a terrifying near collision with a Slovenian coach who lost his footing and slid across the course seconds in front of him, Miller won his 22nd career World Cup race--second among U.S. skiers only to Phil Mahre's 27--by .15 of a second over Didier Cuche of Switzerland.

Miller's performance recalled his World Cup dominance of 2003 to '05, mixing once-in-a-generation rhythm and vision with brazen tactics. "He looks like he is concentrating on skiing again," said Michael Walchhofer of Austria, silver medalist in the Turin Olympic downhill and fifth in that event at Beaver Creek.

In a broader sense Miller's victory was his first step from the shadows of last season, when a solid performance by the U.S. men's team (a near-record 20 podium finishes by four skiers) was blighted by a disappointing Olympics (one medal, by Ted Ligety in the combined) and the ill will engendered by Miller's irreverence and his very public carousing in the Olympic ski village.

Yet if it was Bode who infected the team last season, it was Bode who began to cure it last week. Rising U.S. racer Steve Nyman was third in the Beaver Creek downhill, putting two American skiers on the podium for the first time since Miller and the now-retired Daron Rahlves went one-two in last year's Beaver Creek giant slalom. "Boy, our team needed this a lot," said Bill Marolt, CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and Miller's foe in matters of conduct. "Sometimes a little controversy isn't all bad; people get on edge and respond."

Scarcely 24 hours later Ligety finished third in the giant slalom, the fifth podium of his ascendant career. Meanwhile, 1,400 miles away in frigid Lake Louise, Alberta, U.S. women's racer Lindsey Kildow, 22, last seen picking herself up from a horrific downhill crash at the Olympics to compete through the pain in four more races, won a World Cup downhill, finished second in another and also placed second in a Super G, a three-podium weekend that gave the U.S. six podiums in three days, one of the best weekends in ski-team history.

The performances could not have been more different from the U.S. showing in Turin, where Miller was credited by the Associated Press with the killing quote, "I got to party and socialize at an Olympic level."

On the day before his Beaver Creek downhill win, Miller told SI that those words were misinterpreted. This is not the first time he has made such a claim about something he said, but as always, his explanation is intriguing. "The results were a bummer--I felt I could have done better," said Miller. "But how many times in my career have I had disappointing results? I've skied 350 World Cup races [actually 245]. I felt like I put in a good effort in the races. Outside of that, I had a phenomenal time at the Olympics. My family and friends were there, and I got to spend time with them in an atmosphere that was totally unique, and it was awesome. It was the best two weeks of my life, literally."

It was not the best two weeks of Marolt's life. "We've got a big constituent group that follows us," he said in Beaver Creek. "It's corporate sponsors, it's private donors, it's ski resorts, it's kids and their families. We need to put the best possible face on the sport." Private donors supply more than 40% of USSA's $24 million budget, and some of them were embarrassed by Miller (and to a lesser degree, by freestyle skier Jeret Peterson, who was removed from the Games after getting involved in a fistfight).

Hence, last summer USSA team members were ordered to sign an agreement requiring them to stay in designated team hotels during training and competition, to not consume alcoholic beverages at official team functions, and to not drink alcoholic beverages in the same establishments as team coaches and staff. There was little doubt that the rules were aimed at Miller, who has traveled the European circuit for three years in a motor home and makes no secret of his taste for the nightlife. The men's ski team at first balked at the rules. Ligety recalls hearing team officials define the word integrity as "something like 'unwavering adherence'" to team policies. (The actual definition in USSA documents is "steadfast, incorruptible.") Ligety's reaction: "I thought, Oooooh-kay, what is this, Soviet Russia?" Eventually all team members signed, but most remain unhappy with what they perceive as the Bode Rules.

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