US skier Bode Miller in a period of reflection
ADLER, RUSSIA — The thing about being the king of the hill for the better part of a decade is that it gives you a unique view. Of your sport. Of yourself.
In recent weeks on the World Cup circuit, on the training runs down the Caucasus Mountains this week, Olympic champion Bode Miller has sensed a difference between himself and some of the young guns trying to topple him. He’s seen the hunger he had in medaling at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, the brashness that led to his infamous meltdown four years later in Turin, in the others. But not himself.
It’s not that the Coto de Caza, Calif., resident has mellowed.
“I’ve been pretty mellow for a long time,” Miller said. “I can’t get too much more mellow. A tranquilizer dart, maybe.”
But at 36 and on the eve of his fifth Olympic Games, Miller finds himself in a period of reflection that has given him perspective and a self-awareness, a realization that there is an energy to living on youth’s rough edges. An energy he wonders if he can find once more in what are likely the final Games in a career considered by many as the greatest in American skiing history.
“In 2010, I felt mentally much stronger than I was in the past,” said Miller, who won the Olympic super combined gold at Whistler. “I knew my fitness was crap. (But) I felt I had the mental capacity to get over that stuff and still win medals.
“I think this year, I guess you see the advantages of being not just young but maybe a little more naive about things and a little more excitable,” he continued. “And at the Olympics you want to go way past your limit in certain circumstances so that you make sure you do everything you can. I think it can be a hindrance to be in your fifth Olympics with 400 and some World Cups behind you. I do get less nervous. I do get less excited. I’m much more focused and I’m hoping that tradeoff works in my favor. But I definitely can see from my perspective how some of my competitors, in a way, have an advantage over me.
“For me, I’m hoping my focus and intensity can carry through. It’s not that I’m not excited. I’m really excited. I’m hoping the opening ceremony will stir some of my emotions, also. But I’ve also definitely kind of been here and done this. So not to take anything away from the Olympics, but it just isn’t the same after you’ve done it as many times as I have.”
Yet he’ll step into the starting gate for the Olympic downhill and super-combined events in possibly the best shape of his career and considered among the favorites in both. Miller has also survived a turbulent year-and-a-half, marked by immense joy, a very public custody battle and tragedy.
Chelone “Chilly” Miller, a rising snowboard star, was found dead near Mammoth Lakes last April, after apparently having a seizure related to injuries he suffered in a 2005 motorcycle crash that left him in a coma for 11 days. Bode Miller’s brother was 29. The pain of Chilly’s death is still raw in Miller, an emotion he may call upon to drive him down the mountain.
“I was very proficient at creating emotional environments inside my head, inside my body (when I was younger),” Miller said. “Obviously if I do need at some point some emotional inspiration or some emotional power to connect to ski racing, I could obviously use my brother’s passing to do that. But I just feel like, really … it’s just a crappy, you know those things happen. It’s part of life.
“And I’ve lost friends, for in ski racing, if you’re a ski racer, you sure … better be prepared to lose people. Or get killed yourself. Or get maimed. It’s a very risky sport. There’s no way to avoid that reality if you do it long enough. The fact that he passed away really just sucks. There’s just no two ways about it. I don’t think it really gets less (painful). Maybe a little bit over time. But it just is a terrible loss for my family and for myself.”
His brother’s death wasn’t his only loss. His new wife, Morgan Beck, a professional beach volleyball player, suffered a miscarriage in January 2013.
A month later Sara McKenna, a former girlfriend, gave birth to Miller’s son, Samuel Bode Miller McKenna, in New York. The birth of the boy, whom Miller and his wife call Nathaniel (part of Chilly’s name), sparked a contentious custody fight between Miller and McKenna, a former Marine at Camp Pendleton now attending Columbia University, that has played out on the pages of the New York tabloids. A family court judge rebuked McKenna for leaving California when she was five months pregnant.
Controversy, of course, is nothing new to Miller, the one-time bad boy of Olympic winter sports. His crash-and-burn routine in Turin was one of the biggest stories of the 2006 Olympics.
Miller, a gold-medal favorite in multiple events, not only didn’t make the medal podium, he failed to finish two races and was disqualified in another. He dealt with the defeats with nonchalance and by partying into the wee hours. As he did then, Miller, in the wake of his recent turmoil and tragedy, turned to family for stability and balance.
Miller and Beck bought a $4.1 million home complete with a backyard beach volleyball court in Coto de Caza. Together they are helping raise Neesyn Dacey, 5, Miller’s daughter from another previous relationship.
“My priorities are always kind of the same,” Miller said. “I don’t think they really shifted as much as maybe certain people would when they have kids and all of a sudden they say, ‘Holy crap, I’m not the center of everything,’ and I would do something for somebody else first. That just wasn’t really the case for me because it was kind of already there. But definitely, it’s important that I make (Neesyn Dacey) proud. And it’s important that, so I invest maybe a little bit more in the way that the world interprets my actions and my stuff. Just because I know she has to deal with that filter. And it’s always hurt my feelings the way that I’m portrayed badly for my family. It doesn’t matter to me at all. I know who I am and I’m totally fine with that. I don’t get too bent about it. But I feel awful, when, you know in the 2006 Olympics when everyone’s like, ‘He’s the worst person ever. He’s a disgrace. He shouldn’t be let back in the country.’ And my grandmother who’s 90 years old, who was there during the whole Olympics and spent all that time with me and couldn’t understand why everyone was being that way.
“And that obviously hurt my feelings. So that’s another example of a person who fits into that category that’s really important to me, how she feels about me.”
Turin, Miller said, was a learning experience.
“I think dealing with those kinds of tough situations, that’s obviously part of growing and being a person,” he said. “But when you’re under the magnifying glass like that there’s no way to really judge yourself too harshly in hindsight, I don’t think. I mean obviously I could have said things differently, I could have done things differently. A lot of other people could have obviously done things differently, too.
“And you know, solving the whole thing would have been just a little wind, the rock in the giant slalom, that recovery in the Super G. I had chances to win. I was prepared. I don’t think I did anything dramatically as evil as it was portrayed. But I think that’s part of being under the microscope that way, and I think I’m fully capable of dealing with it and it didn’t really ruffle me as bad as I think a lot of people would have expected. I just don’t seem to get bothered by that stuff that much. It was a great learning experience, certainly.”
But it didn’t shift his view that skiing was more than just a sport to him.
“It’s an amazing sport,” Miller said. “It’s what I love to do. It’s a learning tool for me personally in my development as a human being. It’s my livelihood, it’s how I make my money. It’s how I share with other people. It’s part of my expression to the world.”
So he remains his own man, charting his own course on and off the mountain.
Miller “has his own style, and he doesn’t really care how he looks,” said Jared Goldberg, Miller’s U.S. teammate. “He doesn’t have to be perfect all the way down. He just sends it down the mountain as hard as he can. And it seems to work.”
A knee injury forced Miller to sit out the 2012-13 season, but in recent weeks he has shown more than a few glimpses of his top form. “He’s very strong and has been very fast recently,” Norway coach Havard Tjorhom said. Miller was second in the Super G, third in the downhill at a World Cup stop in Kitzbuhel, Austria, two weeks ago. On Thursday, he had the fastest downhill training run.
“I’ve been skiing technically really well. I’m in a much better spot this year than I was in 2010,” said Miller, who added a Super G silver and a downhill bronze to go with his gold in Whistler.
How much better? Giuliano Razzoli, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist, called Miller the “man of the Games.”
“There are a few names that can shine,” said Razzoli, when asked to pick the skiing star of the Sochi Olympics. “Aksel Lund Svindal (Norway’s Olympic Super G champion) for sure is one of them. But if I have choose one name, I would say Bode Miller.”
The question is, will Miller, at 36, be able to find that edge, the dare to ski on the edge that for so long has been his trademark and that he now sees in so many others. Will he be at the top of his last Olympic mountain once more?
In the months leading up the Sochi Games, he talked about how Chilly’s death still haunted him, still tore him up, and whether he might channel that pain and anger into something positive. Something that might light the flame one last time.
“It is obviously super emotional, and there’s a lot of love and passion there and power,” he said. “So if you can channel that into ski racing, it’s possibly something that can make a difference.”