In a way, it's fitting for Bode Miller's Olympic career to end like this, if this is indeed the end. Having re-injured his knee in Wednesday's giant slalom, in which he finished 20th, the 36-year-old absented himself from the last ski race of the Sochi Olympics, today's slalom. He'd spent his career sliding and crashing out of individual races, and his results list has more Did Not Finishes on it than that of perhaps any other top racer in the sport. Withdrawing from today's race was an inadvertent homage. Sochi Olympics: DNF.
In fact, take a good look at that results list—at the way Bode slaloms between good results and bad ones. Without knowing much about the sport, you can almost visualize the style of a skier like that. We're talking about a guy who, in any given race, was as likely to win a medal as he was to slide out of a course or crash. No, really. In 19 Olympic races, starting with Nagano in 1998, he medaled six times and DNF'd six times. He was also disqualified from a seventh race, the combined in the 2006 Turin Games; in classic Bode style, he was in first place after the downhill, but hooked a ski in the slalom.
His erratic results have generally stemmed from two things. First was his super-aggressive, attack-dog style; this was never a guy who held anything back. Coaches would grouch over the way he'd insist on going all-out, risking everything, on second runs—even if he'd already established a podium-clinching lead in the first run. Where other racers might scrub a little speed on a turn to make sure they stay upright and in the game, he'd lean on the pedal instead. And where other skiers might take a more conservative line, making sure they have some room between their skis and the actual gate, he'd squeeze in so close to the gate that he'd clip it with his ski, or even take it out.
Sometimes, this worked. He won more World Cup races than any other American man in history, taking the overall World Cup championship twice. He won two bronzes, three silvers, and a gold in the Olympics.
Sometimes, it turned into a showcase for a ridiculous recovery—like when he took down a panel in a super-G race in Turin in 2006, wound up with his left foot and left ski twisted behind him and facing uphill, and still managed to bring that 200 cm-or-so ski back where it should've been—all while still going downhill at some 50 or 60 mph.
And sometimes, it led to a spectacular crash. Here he is in a downhill at Beaver Creek in 2008:
His unpredictability wasn't just the result of his aggression, though. It was also a matter of his unique, weight-in-the-backseat, arms-flailing-around form. It's the kind that would be called "creative" if you wanted to be flattering, or "insane" or "ugly" if you didn't. It's also the kind of form that requires the racer to be ridiculously strong if it's going to have even a smidgen of a chance of working.
Don't believe me? Do a little experiment here: Try standing just in your shoes in an aggressive athlete's position—hands forward, upper body still, weight toward the balls of your feet. Then try dropping some weight into your booty instead and throwing your arms out. For extra credit, at the same time, try throwing your knees from side to side as far as you can—far enough that only the edge of your foot is still on the floor, creating the "angulation" that, if you were on skis and snow, would be driving the edge of your ski into the hill. And for extra extra credit, have a buddy try to pull you down after you've assumed each of these two different positions. Ideally, the buddy should weigh five times as much as you do. (The average World Cup racer pulls about 5 G's on a turn, meaning he feels the pressure of five times his body weight. And on some turns, Bode himself has actually pulled 12 G's.)
Then imagine that difference in form… on skis… going over ice, bumps, and ruts... at 50 to 90 mph. You start to get why Bode's style takes particular—scratch that, superhuman—strength.
When it works, it works, thanks largely to the speed-creating, gravity-defying angles it's able to carve into the snow.
Take this 2008 World Cup slalom in Levi, Finland. Bode took on the course with poles pumping, skis flying, hand sometimes even grazing the snow, all a far cry from the classic, coached style of "keep your upper body quiet, swing those skis from side to side." And he clinched second place:
These are all reasons why race fans have loved watching him over the years. You never knew if Bode was going to blow it, or blow everyone off the mountain, or just pull off an insane recovery. ("Bode Miller save" and "Bode Miller miracle" are practically YouTube genres.)
He had an aversion to risk aversion, you might say. And when it came to the Sochi Olympics, the fact that he was competing at all was pretty bold. He'd missed the entirety of last season, thanks to microfracture surgery on his left knee. Then he'd injured his right knee in a G.S. race the very week before Sochi.
True to form, he decided to ski every single event in Sochi anyway (until deciding against the slalom). And his results were as unpredictable as ever. He was favored to win the downhill; he came in first on two of the three training runs the athletes were allowed. And yet, on race day, he finished in eighth—and put his head in his hands.
A week later, though, he came roaring back—and took bronze in the super-G. That made him the oldest ski racer ever to medal in the Olympics.
Of course, what most people will remember of the race is the stuff that happened afterward. In the film clip watched 'round the world, NBC reporter Christin Cooper pressed Bode to tears after his win last week by asking about his brother, who died last year. But the surprise, to me, wasn't the line of questioning. It was how graciously Bode responded. He maintained his poise throughout the interview, even through tears. Later, he was even more gracious still: "I know she didn't mean to push," he told Matt Lauer. "I don't blame her at all. I feel terrible that she's taking the heat for that."
It seemed a particularly grown-up response for a guy with a reputation for being something of a bad boy. Sure, the reputation was partly a Nike contrivance, but it was significant seeing him shed all that to allow himself a few moments of simple, unaffected humanity in front of the cameras.
It was a reminder, too, of how strange all that late-arriving celebrity must've been for someone like Miller, who grew up entirely under the radar. The outlines of his offbeat childhood are well known to race fans: He grew up without electricity in New Hampshire; he was home-schooled until third grade. When he started racing, his unpredictable style and frequent crashes meant that few saw him as a real contender.
When he did start to gain some renown, he seemed almost surprised by how much attention people paid to him. I know because I met him in those relatively early days, at a World Cup race in Utah in 2003, and I still remember how surprised I was at his surprise that I knew who he was—or that a teenaged girl would have a crush on him. After all, he was a 25-year-old with a big reputation among ski fans, having nabbed silver, twice, in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Still, when I thrust two posters at him to sign—probably giggling and gibbering at the same time—he looked as if he didn't know what to do with a pen. "You want me to sign these posters? Uh, OK," he said, equal parts polite and taken aback.
Even as more attention came his way the next few years, he didn't seem to know quite how to handle it. At his worst, he could come off as a guy who just couldn't be bothered. Most notoriously, there were his off-the-cuff remarks about skiing when drunk in 2006. In the Olympics that year, he gained more media attention for his après-ski than for his performance on the hill (which wasn't terrible—fifth in downhill, sixth in GS—but far from what had been expected of him).
But that's what made him so appealing to the likes of Nike. His maverick racing style was bound up with his behavior away from the sport. So celebrity arrived easily for him, even if it rested uncomfortably on his shoulders. In Bormio in 2005, Miller lost a ski near the top of a G.S. course. Other racers would have skied out, opting against the unnecessary—and somewhat showy—derring-do of continuing on one ski. He kept skiing anyway.
He followed that up with another (and more significant) show of rebellion, leaving the U.S. ski team in 2007 to train on his own. He had a great 2008 season—and then a 2009 that was so bad there was open talk that he'd burned out.
And then, he righted himself. At the end of 2009, he rejoined the U.S. team. And at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, he took gold in the combined, silver in the super-G, and bronze in the downhill. He seemed to have matured. Tales of his bar-hopping escapades were at a minimum. On the hill, his skiing, too, looked more controlled and fluid (for, you know, Bode).
Here he is in the Vancouver super-G:
These days, the Bode who shows up onscreen seems a far cry from the daredevil of 2006—and certainly from the baffled guy hodling a pen in 2003. I can't imagine Miller skylarking through interviews anymore the way he used to. Everything seems a little heavier with him, even the scandals. He and his wife, Morgan, are in the middle of a nasty custody battle with the mother of his baby son that began even before the boy—the mother calls him Sam; Bode calls him Nate—was born. (Neither Bode nor Morgan has come off well during the case.)
"Do you feel old on the slopes?" Stephen Colbert asked Miller the other night.
"I felt old at the bottom of a lot of those races," he replied. "At the top, I feel like a kid I'm all jittery and excited. Then you get to the bottom, and when it was pretty quiet during a couple of my races when I came into the finish line—then you look up and you feel pretty old sometimes."
Miller also told Colbert, "I brought home the bronze in my wife favorite event, so I think this might be the time to hang it up. But if I can go for another one, [I will] if my body holds up."
You could feel the years on him. He was now an athlete confronting his career's mortality. It makes you hope for one more miracle recovery. And if anyone can do it, Bode Miller's the man.
Freelance journalist Amanda Ruggeri, a former ski racer, writes for publications including the BBC, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. After nearly five years of living (and skiing) in Italy, she now lives in Brooklyn, where she has learned that when it snows, her new neighbors do not share her enthusiasm.
Photo via Getty.