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COMMENTARY

Guess who's back at the top, and only 10 months too late

December 31, 2006|Jim Litke | Associated Press

Timing is everything when the distance between champion and chump is measured in hundredths- and sometimes thousands-of-a-second.

So nearly a year after most people quit paying attention, a few will scan the newspaper or the Internet to find that Bode Miller has his groove back and just shrug.

Too little, too late.

Like he cares.

"Things are starting to come together for me," Miller said. But this time, when we add that he's pulling the entire U.S. team down the slope with him, it's meant as a compliment.

Suddenly, the same Americans who underachieved at the Winter Games are on fire. Miller is the only World Cup skier with three victories this season, and just a few snowflakes separate him from Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal at the top of the rankings.

Thanks to a jolt of independence and a little maturity from you-know-who, Miller's teammates have been following his lead, stringing together five wins and nine medals in a six-day stretch.

"The athletes are feeding off each other in terms of confidence and momentum," U.S. Alpine director Jesse Hunt said. "It's pretty cool."

After a disastrous Olympic showing, U.S. officials spent the summer trying to rein in Miller and, instead, wound up haggling with his teammates over rules designed to curb drinking and dictating where they sleep during races. The skiers gave in, reluctantly, but only after learning a few lessons about asserting themselves and getting some concessions. Clearing the air appears to have done everybody some good.

Even Miller.

"Last year, every time I went out at night I saw Bode and he was going home after me," Austrian men's ski coach Toni Giger told the Associated Press. "This year I haven't seen him too often when I go out. I think he's more focused on his skiing and less on going out and drinking and having fun."

Miller is beating better competition on tougher hills than he faced at the Olympics, yet none of this should come as a surprise. When he's on, which he wasn't 10 months ago in Turin, no one was better. Why he wasn't is a question he still hasn't answered.

I tracked Miller back to his RV a half-hour after he'd officially bombed out of the Olympics. It was the third time we had talked in five days and nothing had changed. Miller hadn't won a race, and he definitely wasn't about to change his tune. Near the end of the conversation, he said something that became not just the template for his stint at the games, but the opening line of the Slacker's Anthem:

"I got to party and socialize at an Olympic level."

Certainly not the smartest remark, but it was consistent with everything else Miller said over those few days. He made no excuses, didn't mention a bum knee or blame anyone but himself. And after watching other big-time athletes get caught staying out late, then faking their way through an apology some lawyer wrote, I admired him for standing his ground, no matter how shaky it seemed. Apparently not everybody felt that way.

By the time I ran into Miller at the Kentucky Derby, the amount of hate mail he had received could be stacked higher and wider than the bales of hay alongside trainer Bob Baffert's barn. Miller was there because he and Baffert had become fast friends, but first they were kindred spirits. Three months before they met, back in 2004, Baffert named his son Bode because he loved Miller's pedal-to-the-medal style.

Wiseguy that he is, though, even Baffert couldn't resist an opportunity to pile on. "Friends of mine have been saying, 'Is it too late to change your son's name to Apolo?' " he said.

Feeling responsible, I started mumbling an apology. Miller cracked a wide grin and stuck out his right hand. "Dude," he said, "we're cool."

That was in May, when Miller's knee was still bandaged after surgery to repair cartilage damage that had hampered him since a major crash five years earlier. His doctor told the New York Times this week, "We got in there and it was as bad as we feared. He had a remarkable season last year, considering the cartilage damage on the knee."

At the Derby, though, all Miller said was that the knee felt good, that he had a new ski sponsor, and that he was expecting some big things in the upcoming season. Now he's delivering.

Miller likely has changed very little, so don't take this as an endorsement of his training regimen. But remember that nearly all of the great ones -- Jordan, Woods, Gretzky, Armstrong -- liked to live it up, too. They put in so much time at the gym, that when they delivered, what we remember is their ferocious appetite ... for work.

A few -- Babe Ruth, according to legend, Allen Iverson, even today -- have done pretty well for themselves doing things their way. In what might be his last season, the shame is that Miller can prove over and over that he was one of the best, and still be remembered for the wrong thing -- partying.

He never got credit for revolutionizing his sport, for taking advantage of new technology -- shorter skis with broader tips -- to attack the slopes with more strength and guts than just about everyone who preceded him. Now, the rest of world is following the trail he blazed.

Knowing Bode just a little, my guess is that if there's any consolation, it's this: He did it his way.

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