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Right Out of the Gate

Once labeled reckless and defiant, a maturing Bode Miller leads race for World Cup title

January 26, 2003|Pete Thomas | 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.

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