- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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He is, by most accounts, the most talented skier in the world. And yet the very brilliance, the unquenchable drive that defines Bode Miller often drives him off his skittering skis.
A 27-year-old from Franconia, N.H., Miller has raced in 37 World Cup events this year and failed to finish 15 of them a staggering hit-or-miss percentage of more than 40 percent. This is why his overall World Cup lead over Austria's Benjamin Raich, once 352 points as 2004 waned, is down to a scant 52 points. Raich, the low-risk model of Tyrolian elegance, has finished 37 straight races.
The World Cup final in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, which runs Wednesday through Sunday, will determine the outcome. Four races the men's downhill, super-G, giant slalom and slalom worth 100 points each will reveal if the all-or-nothing Miller can save himself from ... himself. There is, as with any Miller venture, a keen sense of foreboding.
"I'm making stupid mistakes here. I'm blowing a good result," Miller told reporters in Kvitfjell, Norway, on Sunday. "My lead over Raich is really small. I need to be winning, so I'm going to manage the races with that in mind."
That, of course, would be a first. Then, again, maybe Miller is actually maturing and starting to see the larger picture. Perhaps, his recent experiences he was in contention for last year's overall title before fading to fourth have tempered his chronic inability to back off.
"Bode," says U.S. men's head coach Phil McNichol, "is always going to be Bode."
Here is what's at stake for Miller: He's trying to become the first American man to win the overall title since Phil Mahre in 1983.
That's 22 years several generations in the context of elite skiing. In 1983, the second space shuttle, Challenger, with Sally K. Ride aboard, completed its maiden voyage. The United States invaded Grenada. The Washington Redskins were Super Bowl champions and North Carolina State authored one of the great NCAA upsets, beating Houston in the final. Compact discs and cell phones, in their archaic infancy, were introduced that year.
Miller was 5-years old, blasting down the slopes of New Hampshire's Cannon Mountain. He could pull a Misty 720 on a snowboard, but nothing thrilled him like hurtling toward the bottom on a pair of skis. Miller was born in a modest home without the comforts of running water or electricity and was homeschooled by a mother, Jo, who was very much a flower child of the times. His father, Woody, was a member of the ski patrol. In high school, Miller was an extraordinary tennis and soccer player and today can threaten par on the most demanding golf courses.
These days, he seems to relish threatening the institution of U.S. Alpine skiing.
In a column he writes for several newspapers from Italy to Switzerland to Denver, Miller said earlier this year he was considering quitting the U.S. Ski team after the 2006 Olympics.
"A lot of people are wondering if I'm going to retire after the 2006 Olympics, which is a possibility," Miller wrote. "One possibility is to take a year off after the Olympics. Another alternative I've thought about a little is phasing myself out of the U.S. Ski team and starting my own team."
Unhappiness over compensation and the demands of the media led Miller to question his allegiance to the team.
"Lots of guys on the team don't make a sufficient income to live on," he wrote. "They don't get good medical coverage. They're expected to abide by all kinds of rules and not have fun because of the way the schedule is drawn. With my time, everyone would have a chance to have some down time and party."
This is, pretty much, how Miller already functions tenuously within the U.S. Ski system. Miller travels the World Cup circuit in his own RV and is (in)famous for his partying, missing team meetings and passing on pre-race preparations that are mandatory for other team members.
Those who run the program walk a fine line. How do administrators view Miller's rise to prominence and increasing independence?
"Well," said Jesse Hunt, the U.S. Ski team's Alpine program director, "we don't have a lot of experience with it. Right now, he's been with this program for 10 years. I don't know where things are headed. But we're committed and have provided a sound development plan. We'll see where it goes."
Will Miller compete for the United States in the Olympics?
Hunt sighed. "I believe so," he said.
McNichol, a free spirit, who sometimes drops the phrase "no worries," says there is a history of hierarchy within national ski teams.
"[Italy's Alberto] Tomba had his own coach," McNichol says. "The Mahre brothers, though they didn't break away from the team, had their own team within a team. Marc Girardelli broke away from the Austrians [and competed for Luxembourg].
"His stardom, his rebel blood and intense individualism he's always trying to make a statement as an individual. That's been a little bit at odds with the team. But, in true Miller fashion, he's been one of the best team members at the same time as being disruptive. It's because he pushes every barrier.
"He wants things his way, and because he's good he can get it."
McNichol adds: "We've been actually fortunate as a staff to keep Bode in the realm of Bode."
At the world championships in Italy earlier this year, there was a moment that offered insight into that realm. Early in a downhill run that was part of the combined event, Miller tried to force his will on the hill and the mountain fought back, sending his left ski sliding off the course. Any other skier immediately would have admitted defeat, but Miller continued down for another mile on his single ski, lasting for about 1½ minutes. It was an astonishing performance as amazing as any other successful run at the championships.
Miller's crash-and-burn style has won him fans around the world. He is already the darling of the European newspapers the Italian newspapers call him the "Cowboy of the Snow." Now, would an overall title make him a hero in his own country?
He was always different; while the conventional training of skiers insisted on mastering technique and, gradually, building speed into the equation, Miller started with raw speed and gradually applied technique. He was strictly interested in going vertical ski gates that stretched the horizontal plane were just a necessary evil.
Miller's bio on the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association has this pithy observation: "He doesn't ski safe, doesn't ski with grace, but goes balls out."
That modus operandi has served him well enough this year. Last season, Miller won the World Cup giant slalom title, the first for an American man since Mahre did it in '83. Currently, he is second in the downhill and super-G, and third in the giant slalom. He has a chance to win all three. Raich already has clinched the slalom title.
Miller was in contention for the overall title last year, but faded to fourth. Austria's Herman Maier, who survived a horrific 2001 motorcycle crash that almost cost him his right leg, was the ultimate survivor, winning his fourth overall title. This season, Maier, who won the downhill and super-G events in Norway, has moved to third in the standings, with 1,166 points.
Nevertheless, the overall championship, distilled, is a duel between Miller and Raich, a fascinating contrast in styles.
Earlier this week, the energy coursing through www.bodelicious.net "Your number 1 source for everything Bode Miller" was palpable. Site administrator Maja Jencic, a 19-year-old Slovenian, was already en route to Switzerland.
"Bode! YOU ARE THE BEST! So show Benni who you are. Go Bode, go, go, go, go, go, go," posted Nina Marinsek, also of Slovenia.
If Miller can curb his cowboy enthusiasm while holding onto his edge, his fans should see him win it all.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Bode Miller is a flash of style and grace on skis, so of course he has embraced the drama of a suddenly tight race for the overall World Cup title.