The following is excerpted from The Fall Line: How American Ski Racers Conquered a Sport on the Edge, by Nathaniel Vinton. The book is available now on Amazon.
Bode Miller's unlikely path to the US Ski Team began at Cannon Mountain, an old-school ski area in Franconia Notch. Though his earliest skiing took place on the sloping field behind his family's tennis camp, Cannon's steep trails became his second home growing up. When Bode and his siblings were little, their mother often dropped them off there to ski on their own in lieu of day care. Jo figured they'd burn off energy, encounter the natural world, and either make friends or be their own company.
Learning to get an edge into the snow was a matter of survival at Cannon, where the winding trails were often glazed with ice. Bode was making do with borrowed or hand-me-down equipment, skis that were too long for him and boots that were so big he had to pay strict attention to his balance lest he tip forward or backward, fall on the ice, and slide into the trees. Often he was forced to use his whole body to make a turn, jumping up to unweight himself and twisting his lower body to swing his skis around so they were pointing in the other direction.
Most of this improvising was unsupervised. For a few years, Miller was part of the Franconia Ski Club, a USSA racing team, but the first in a lifetime of clashes with coaches brought that to an end, and Miller learned to ski on his own, coaching himself through the complex negotiations between his body and gravity that formed the foundation of his skiing style. It was in those years, he would later say, that he discovered his turn.
Naturally, the discovery happened while he was skiing fast. A lot of the time he spent at Cannon, Miller was crouched low in the classic tuck position, his arms outstretched and his crappy skis rattling on the hard snow, moving so fast that the wind dragged tears from his eyes and froze them in the corners of his goggles. The ski patrollers at Cannon, having witnessed the human wreckage of too many collisions, were on alert for Bode, ready to chase him down and confiscate his lift pass for recklessness.
But the speed wasn't just about thrills; Bode found that the faster he went, the better he understood the physics of skiing, because these concepts announced themselves in his flesh. Skiing fast, as all skiers learn, amplifies the natural forces at work in the sport. Your legs thrum with the kinetic friction of your skis displacing snow. You struggle to keep your arms and torso from twisting in the sluggish, resistant air. All these forces combine in infinite permutations on every fast run. Bode learned early that if he could suppress his fear enough to listen to them, and adjust his body and his path to anticipate their effects, he could use them to do things that most skiers never imagined.
When Bode was 14, he lost the chief sponsor of his nascent skiing career: his grandmother, who died of brain cancer in 1992. Peg Kenney had supported her grandson's downhill truancy, buying him season passes at Cannon each winter and letting him partly repay her later with money he earned from summer jobs repairing tennis courts. Her death came at a turbulent time in the Miller household. Jo and Woody had split up, and Woody went away for a bit, leaving Jo to raise the kids at Turtle Ridge. She was piecing together various streams of income, helping run the tennis camp in the summer and in the winters sewing buttonholes on nightgowns for a local clothing company. Her annual income didn't exceed $10,000 a year.
In part because Bode was still crazy about skiing, Jo took a receptionist job at Cannon, where one of the employee perks was free season passes for the entire family. Bode continued to ski daily (and snowboard too), bombing around the mountain with an older crowd and catching rides back home at the end of the day. The future world champion might have languished in that milieu if not for the creativity of John and Patty Ritzo, old friends of the Kenney clan. While teaching and coaching skiing at a nearby prep school years earlier, Ritzo had watched Bode skiing at Cannon and saw promise in the boy's self-taught technique. Five years later, he was the headmaster of Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine; remembering Bode's funky turns and knowing that resources were dear at Turtle Ridge, Ritzo called Jo and told her he was in a position to offer Bode a scholarship.
CVA was a ski academy. Students carried full course loads in the fall and spring so that their winter schedules could accommodate training and racing. Located near the town of Kingfield, at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, CVA was a top feeder program for the US Ski Team. It was expensive, but Ritzo suggested a living arrangement that would save Bode from boarding fees as well as adjustment issues; he could live 20 miles from the campus with Sam Anderson, another scholarship student, who lived with his mother in a woodstove-heated log cabin accessible in the winter only by snowmobile.
In his freshman year at CVA, Bode was exposed for the first time to the kind of sophisticated instruction that most top ski racers had encountered at a much younger age. For the first time, he was training alongside a group of older peers whose varied abilities placed them on every step of the US skiing development pyramid. Some had sponsorships from ski companies. Others had raced in the national championships. They wore coats and fleeces embroidered with the names of USSA's elite regional teams. They had raced around the country, sometimes in Europe, always under the close supervision of coaches who alerted them to bad habits of body position and timing.
At CVA, skiing was a regimented endeavor. Every day during winter, a fleet of vans and buses shuttled students up to nearby Sugarloaf, where roped-off trails were reserved for their training courses. A group of older boys preparing for speed races in Montana might train downhill from 7–9 a.m., then return to the school as a group of girls set out for slalom training in advance of a weekend series in Vermont. In the evening, groups would reconvene to analyze video, with coaches slowing down the tape of each run to a frame-by-frame crawl.
With his secondhand equipment and self-generated carving technique, Bode stood out for the wrong reasons. The freeze-frame images of him were among the most ungainly. With his arms swinging wildly and his weight rocking back on his heels, he was the antithesis of Alberto Tomba, whose disciplined, forward-driving style his classmates sought to mimic. What Bode had going for him, coaches and classmates would later recall, was an ironclad confidence derived in part from his natural athleticism. Bode excelled on the soccer field and tennis courts, could dunk a basketball, was adept on a skateboard, and could throw a football on a level plane with either hand. He was hardwired for sports, and few things illustrated it more clearly than his instant mastery of one of the school's autumn conditioning rituals: upstream runs through the riverbed of the mostly dry Carrabassett River.
The river runs were perfect training for ski racing. The idea was to jog over the boulders and cobbles while keeping your sneakers dry and your shins unbloodied. After running along for a mile in this way, leaping with downcast eyes, you entered a sort of trance. As your field of vision narrowed to the rocks scrolling by, your ankles learned to instantly gauge the wobbliness of each weathered stone, feeling out its angularity or slickness. It was not unlike skiing, in which the muscles and joints in your legs provide not just stability but intelligence, a constant stream of information for the brain to compute. Going fast activated something powerful in one's deepest cognitive faculties. It was an instinct that Bode had honed in lieu of instruction from others.
From the beginning of his time at CVA, Bode owned the river runs. No one could compete. A coach would drive the kids down Route 27 and drop them off; they would all scamper down into the riverbed; the run would start; and Bode would jump out into the lead. In a minute or two he would disappear around a bend, way out in front of everyone, reaping the harvest of truant days playing in the streambed back home at Turtle Ridge.
Elite teenage sports academies can induce peculiar neuroses, in part because ambitious children tend to fixate on the measurements of achievement, the imperfect systems of ranking and scores, and interpret those measurements as ends in themselves. At CVA, Bode Miller never fell victim to that mentality, and in fact went toward the other extreme, paying little attention to concrete results. He devoted his energy to experimenting with equipment and taking tuck runs down Sugarloaf when the ski patrol wasn't looking. He played around on classmates' snowboards. He developed his own notions of technique and line, and argued on behalf of them with his coaches.
Bode was far from the best skier at the school, but he was the most analytical. As they rode the chairlift together during training, his roommate Sam Anderson recalls, Bode would study the tracks in the snow and theorize about them. Bode would ski lines that he couldn't physically pull off yet, rather than ski where everyone else did. After a race, Bode would break down his run, talking about all the things he'd done wrong. His analysis was often an entirely different interpretation of his mistakes from what his coaches would point out. What Anderson remembers most was Bode's granite self-confidence, his ability to tune out critics. "It was incredible how he never let that bother him," Anderson recalls. "He had this unwavering certainty about what he was going to do."
Bode improved while at CVA, and by his junior year he even won some important races, but he retained his tendency to lean back, and even denied that it was a bad habit. Every day, coaches advised him to move his weight forward, insisting that was the only way to maintain stability and initiate a turn—the crucial moment when a ski begins bending. Miller countered that leaning back was an effective way to carve; by moving his weight back onto his heels, he could put bend in the tails of the skis.
Luckily for Miller, one of his primary coaches at CVA was Chip Cochrane, a former World Cup downhiller from northern Maine who saw Miller's potential and allowed him the leeway to invent his own style. Witnesses to their relationship remember them arguing stub- bornly but respectfully on van rides. Cochrane could see that Bode had grown up in a more intimate relationship with the mountains than the average skier, and had received minimal formal education in skiing technique.
"Chip is probably maybe the second most independent person I've met in my life, Bode being the first," John Ritzo recalls. "A lot of coaches prior to that tried to fit Bode into the more traditional model. Chip didn't. I think he saw the potential Bode had, but I think he also saw that Bode had his own ideas."
By Bode's senior year at CVA, he was convinced that skis shaped more like snowboards would help his skiing as much as any of the reconfigurations of stance his coaches were recommending. He needed more sidecut. The term essentially means that the ski has an hourglass shape; instead of a long rectangle, uniform in width from end to end, a ski with sidecut is wide near each end but narrow in the middle, where the skier stands on it. Skis had been built with sidecut for decades, but usually only with a minimal amount, especially race skis, where sidecut was thought to be a destabilizing factor.
Snowboards were another story. CVA had a snowboarding team, and Miller—who was a skilled boarder himself—couldn't help seeing how snowboarders seemed to spring from one turn to the next. It was easier for them to get their boards to bend and track through a turn than it was for most of the skiers to do the same. Something was helping them handle the centrifugal forces that built up at the apex of the turn.
It was clearly the equipment, Miller thought—particularly the standard snowboard's hourglass shape. If you clicked into a snowboard, sat down on the snow and extended your legs down the slope so the snowboard rested upright on its edge, you could see how the board was narrowest in its midsection. The edges along each end of the board would be in contact with the slope but, because of the sidecut, a crescent of daylight would be visible in the middle where your feet were attached. As you pushed your feet down on the middle of the board, you depressed the middle of it until the whole edge was touching the snow, and the board was bent in an arc perfect for carving.
Miller searched around for skis with radical sidecuts, but few existed. The only ones on hand were K2 Fours, a recreational model designed for intermediate skiers as an instructional crutch. The skis were short and lightweight, the exact opposite of racing skis, and when Miller took them up on the mountain, the K2 Fours did exactly what he expected. As his speed mounted and he tilted the skis up on edge, their tips and tails gripped the snow, and the skis bent and took off.
Miller soon mounted each ski with an EPB plate, a foot-long strip of layered rubber and metal under the foot, between the ski and the binding. It was meant to dampen vibration, and also to make the ski heavier. When Miller tried that combination, he knew it would work. He decided to race with the whole kooky assembly at the Junior Olympics, a season-end championship that featured the best hundred juniors in the eastern United States in four races: downhill, super G, giant slalom, and slalom.
Miller won three of the four races and was second in the fourth. He used the K2 Fours in the super G and won by 2.02 seconds. He used them in the giant slalom and won by 2.11 seconds. The victories guaranteed his invitation to the US national championships, to be held a few weeks later on the same slope at Sugarloaf. Starting thirtieth in the slalom there, Miller wore his torn-up old speedsuit and a pair of K2 slalom skis with tip deflectors. He finished third. According to the objective selection criteria, that meant he was on the US Ski Team.
Two months later Miller failed to graduate from CVA, spurning a senior English assignment while he pursued his skiing dreams.
Excerpted with permission from The Fall Line: How American Ski Racers Conquered a Sport on the Edge, by Nathaniel Vinton. Copyright 2015, W. W. Norton & Company.
Nathaniel Vinton is an investigative sports reporter at the New York Daily News and longtime ski racing correspondent. Find ways to find him online at www.nathanielvinton.com