Right Out of the Gate

Times Staff Writer

Phil McNichol describes Bode Miller as "a casual guy and a supernatural athlete," a late-blooming ski racer careening swiftly down tracks laid years ago by the sport's greatest stars.

The coach of the U.S. men's team went so far as to predict that Miller, once labeled reckless and defiant -- a label he has yet to fully shake -- will eventually hold stature similar to such luminaries as Ingemar Stenmark, Marc Girardelli, Alberto Tomba and Phil Mahre.

"They come from different eras so it's hard to compare them," McNichol said. "But for sure Bode is going to be and already is developing into one of those few special people that the sport will see. Bode has pushed and will continue to push the sport to new levels."

As for Miller, winner of two silver medals at the 2002 Olympics, he just wants to ski.

"I try not to think about it, but people, the media, keep bringing it up," the 25-year-old said last week from Kitzbuehel, Austria, where he is competing on the World Cup circuit. "I won't know what it'll feel like until it actually comes."

Miller was referring specifically to the overall World Cup championship. He has been in a tight race for several weeks with Austrian downhill specialist Stephan Eberharter.

Through Saturday's downhill, Miller led in points, 890-865. Weather postponed Friday's Super G until Monday. Miller finished eighth and Eberharter was fourth in Saturday's downhill; a slalom is scheduled today. The slalom will figure into the Alpine combined, so -- because Eberharter generally does not compete in slaloms -- Miller has a strong chance of significantly widening his lead.

Indeed, with the season nearly two-thirds complete, and with five slaloms still on the schedule, Miller needs only to stay healthy and perform reasonably well in the technical events to maintain his edge. And should he emerge the overall champion, he will have achieved far more than a personal milestone. He will have played a leading role in lifting American skiing out of the doldrums.

Not since Mahre in 1983 has an American won the overall championship. Mahre did it three years in a row, beginning in 1981. He followed that up by winning an Olympic gold medal in the slalom at Sarajevo in 1984, the same year his twin brother, Steve, won the silver.

Nearly 20 years later, Phil Mahre remains the most prolific skier the United States has produced, a fact that is "surprising, but also frustrating," he said last week by telephone from his home in Yakima, Wash. "We have the ability to produce world-class athletes as much as any other country and to not do it consistently in skiing is, to me, surprising."

Mahre and Miller have met only a couple of times, but Mahre has watched with interest and amusement the wild ride the slalom specialist from Franconia, N.H., has taken.

"If you follow Bode's career he went six years without even finishing a race, so he obviously had serious technical and tactical issues," Mahre said. "He always sat back on his tails, but he went very fast. That's the one thing you look for, somebody who may be a little reckless but wants to go fast. And then you work on improving his technique and tactics -- and then he'll go even faster."

Miller, Mahre said, appears to have finally polished his act enough to become a threat for years to come.

"Bode has the potential to win [the World Cup championship] six or seven times," he said. "If you look at Eberharter, he's [35] and still winning. But he's on the way out and so is [the next-closest competitor, Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt, 31]. If Bode really wants it and stays hungry, he can do it for at least that long because there's really nobody else in the picture -- unless somebody steps up."

Born and raised in rural New Hampshire by alternative-lifestyle parents bent on simplicity, Miller lived in a home without running water or electricity and was home-schooled until after the third grade. He was first placed on skis at 2 and demanded emphatically that he be released from the grasp of his mother.

From then on it was Bode's way -- or bust.

"I used to watch him when he was 7 or 8, beating guys who were 11 or 12 and I was thinking this kid could really ski," recalled John Ritzo, headmaster at Maine's Carrabassett Valley Academy, a private school that mixes ski instruction with academics.

But Miller's style was unorthodox. He sat back on his skis rather than centering his body over them. He dangled his poles in the snow rather than use them to plant before each turn.

Coaches tried adjustments but were always met with resistance. Miller maintained -- and still does today, with a lot less argument -- that he knew what he was doing.

With so much speed and so little control came lots of crashes, but also remarkable recoveries. Miller's trademark: If nothing else, he was entertaining.

In 1990, he was deemed ineligible for the Junior Olympics because he missed a gate and was disqualified. Even today, Miller maintains that disqualification was the result of his refusal to listen to coaches.

Through family connections, and with Ritzo having seen first-hand what Miller could do, he ended up at CVA under a partial scholarship and began to excel as an athlete. His coach, Chip Cochrane, was less intent on reining Miller in than other coaches were. Cochrane's most astute observation was that while Miller's body seemed to be incorrectly placed over his skis, his feet were always in the right place.

Using "shaped" or side-cut skis, which were more responsive and suited his unique style, Miller in 1996 won the Junior Olympics Super G and giant slalom. Despite falling three times, he also finished second in the slalom. That same year in the nationals, his third-place slalom finish landed him a spot on the U.S. ski team.

He was on his way.

Last year was by far his best. He had four World Cup victories, three in slalom and one in giant slalom. His GS triumph at Val d'Isere, France, was the first World Cup victory by an American male since Mahre in 1983. (Tamara McKinney became the first and only American to win the women's overall championship in 1983.)

Miller then took the spotlight in the Salt Lake City Olympics -- as the team's best hope for a gold medal.

Although he settled for silvers in the giant slalom and Alpine combined, he nearly claimed gold in the latter, which involves a calculation of one downhill and two slalom runs. Miller, regarded as the world's fastest slalom skier, needed only to ski smartly and post a fair result in the downhill and make up the difference in his favored discipline.

He failed to do either. He lost an edge in a turn at 60 mph and bounced off his left hip in what looked certain to be a dramatic wipeout. However, he recovered in time to get his right ski down, clear the gate and complete the run.

It left him 2.44 seconds behind Aamodt, an almost insurmountable deficit. But Miller was still in the game. He made two critical mistakes on his first slalom run and climbed over only a few of the downhill specialists in the standings. At that point, his chance at even reaching the podium seemed slim.

In 11th place going into his final run, he turned in one of the most dazzling performances in Olympic history.

He blitzed his final run in 49.73 seconds -- more than a second faster than some of the other top slalom experts -- and fell short of overtaking Aamodt by only .28 of a second.

This year, Miller has worked on becoming a more well-rounded skier. While he has struggled in his best event -- his best slalom finish so far is a second -- he has performed very well in the giant slalom, with two victories and a second, and surprisingly well in the speed events.

His top-10 finishes in five of eight downhills and in all three Super Gs this season have enabled him to stay with Eberharter, who has won five downhills, two giant slaloms and one Super G.

Should Miller win the world championship, it would be quite an achievement. But perhaps his greatest feat would be to have finally won over his coach.

"It's cool to see somebody who just loves to ski and who is just out there trying to find a feeling and go fast on his own, and to discover the things that Bode has discovered," McNichol said. "He has learned from his coaches, but a lot of what he developed has been because of his own little quest. Anyone who has been in the sport for a long time can see that what this kid does is rare. It's special."

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