Bode's decision completely in character
American skiing's prodigiously talented prodigal son has come home.
Bode Miller's decision to return to competition in 2009-10 with the U.S. ski team marks the latest turn in a career that, if seen from above, would resemble one of the toughest slalom courses ever designed -- full of hard angles and icy patches, interspersed with sweet spots where he built up a full head of steam.
He knows it'll take more than fresh snow to fill in the skid marks left by a 2006 Olympic campaign in which he feuded with the team and flaunted a partying lifestyle. Miller's panache and World Cup results have made him an icon in Europe, yet in his home country, most fans only tune in every four years and what they saw at the Torino Games was not flattering.
But as Miller answered questions at a press conference in Los Angeles on Thursday, he gave the distinct impression that he'd like to leave a different image than the one burned into the minds of most casual fans.
"As far as I know, I don't think you can undo anything," he said. "But if you have any ideas about that ..." He paused as laughter rippled through the Staples Center.
Miller then called Olympic competition singular in its inspirational quality.
"World Cup is great and I've been able to get some performances out of myself that I've been surprised by, but there really is no comparison to the energy and the atmosphere surrounding the Olympics," he said. "I'm looking forward hopefully to being able to perform at my very highest level in that atmosphere."
Miller described the process of rejoining the U.S. team as a "re-integration." He also admitted he is out of shape and called that a "scary proposition," but hopes to turn that around with six weeks of intensive training starting next month and has not yet decided when and where he will begin racing.
Leave it to Miller to make this unpredictable maneuver, one of the hallmarks of his style. One of the youngest members of the U.S. Olympic team in 1998, when he did not finish either slalom event, Miller flashed into the national consciousness at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City by winning two silver medals. Fans and reporters alike warmed to the story of his unconventional upbringing in the woods of New Hampshire, his bold all-or-nothing line down a mountain, his creative approach to training methods and equipment, his candor and irreverence.
Miller won the World Cup overall title in 2005, ratcheting up expectations for the 2006 Torino Games. But he flamed out in three of five events, failing to finish two and earning a disqualification in a third, and finished fifth and sixth in the downhill and giant slalom, respectively. His free-spirited nature metabolized into something less appealing when he spoke of skiing "wasted" before the Games and frequented bars during the competition, while insisting on staying in a trailer separate from the rest of the team.
In 2007, Miller seceded from the national program and set up a coaching and support structure he dubbed "Team America." The following season, in arguably the best form of his life, Miller won his second overall World Cup title and broke Phil Mahre's U.S. record for individual World Cup victories. He now has 31, along with four World Championship gold medals.
That might have been enough redemption for most athletes, but Miller kept racing -- at least for a little while. Injured and fatigued, he stepped away from the sport in midseason last year. Thursday, he said he had devoted much of his time off to thinking about his life course instead of being "sucked into the movement and all the momentum that's carrying you forward."
The stillness was pleasant but also jarring for a guy who'd been in motion literally since he was a toddler bombing down Cannon Mountain between his mother's skis.
"I can relate to Brett Favre ... you enjoy your sport, you dedicate your life to it, you can see how nice it would be to walk away and try something new, and then you walk away and there's obviously a big hole left," Miller said. "Especially in my case, where it's my main form of expression. It was pretty obvious I had more to give there."
Miller often won races by taking the edgiest route downhill, but in this instance, he doesn't seem to be cutting any corners. He said he has solicited and received support from U.S. skiing officials and even the U.S. Olympic Committee. It's clear an invitation from second-year U.S. team coach Sasha Rearick, who sat at Miller's side Thursday, was crucial if not decisive in his desire to re-enter the fold. The two worked together more than a decade ago; Miller said they shared "a really strong belief system."
Rearick depicted his young team, which includes 2006 combined event Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety and reigning two-time World Cup overall champion Lindsey Vonn, as "a tight family" -- a dynamic that is doubtless easier because there is no superstar. Can the circle stretch enough to accommodate Miller? And can Miller stretch enough to work within a structure he once rejected? It could be just as much of a challenge as whipping himself back into shape, but Miller, who used the words "positive" and "excited" a couple of dozen times, is at least saying the right things.
"I want to be part of the team in a way I haven't been able to be in the past," he said.
It's tempting to label this as a rebel's return to the establishment, but beware of simple tags. Miller has been the object of glib caricature at times during his career, first as a New Age jock, then as a common slacker. He resisted being pigeonholed and we should resist it, too. No one, no matter how gifted, wins as many races as Miller has without being driven, shrewd and organized enough to get the best out of himself -- a fact that can be obscured by an alternately charming and maddening personality.
Miller's decision is actually completely in character in one sense. It's a risk, and not just because he's turning 32 next month and has a minimal window to get ready for the season. Putting himself back in a team environment -- where he won't have free rein or total control -- may be just as brave as going it alone.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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