PARK CITY, Utah – Two weeks shy of his 36th birthday, “pretty shriveled up” and likely nearing the end of his competitive career, Bode Miller can’t help but think of legacies.
Not the five Olympic medals, the four world titles and whether he is, as most people think, the greatest male skier the United States has ever had. That’s for other people to decide.
“I think they’re more titles for everyone else,” Miller said Monday at the U.S. Olympic Committee media summit. “You’re renting the title until somebody else takes it away. If you’re too attached to it, you’re going to be bummed out when your rental agreement runs out.”
No, what matters to him is the impact he’s had on the sport.
“It’s not so much about my legacy as it is about ski racing in general. Ski racing deserves what you can give to it,” he said. “It’s been the love of my life up until now.”
Even if it’s been, to the outside world, something of a tortured relationship.
Miller was just 20 when he made his first Olympic team in 1998, too inexperienced even to know what he didn’t know. He remembers feeling confident when he stepped into the starting gate, only to get through 15 gates before sailing off the course. By the time he reached the bottom — cartwheeling across the finish line — the Japanese fans greeted him with “raucous applause.”
“In â€˜98, I was basically throwing the dice,” he said.
By the time the Turin Olympics rolled around, Miller was skiing’s biggest star. Like Tomba and the Herminator before him, his success on the slopes — he won four world titles between 2003 and 2005, and claimed his first overall World Cup title in 2005 — was surpassed only by his larger-than-life personality off them. Raised in rural New Hampshire, he is brash, unconventional and free-spirited. (While most other athletes wore sneakers or boots Monday, Miller sported aqua blue Prada flip-flops.)
But the very traits that make him so appealing also were his undoing.
Disdainful of the goal-oriented nature of Olympic sports — to say nothing of the celebrity culture that goes with them — Miller found trouble at every turn in Turin. He made waves by refusing to live in the athletes’ village. He said he had mixed feelings about the U.S. Ski Team’s “Best in the World” motto, saying the organization needed to put as much into it as the skiers did.
And after all those expectations, he went 0-for-the-Olympics, failing even to finish in three of his events. Later, he brushed off criticism of his failure, saying he’d gotten to “party and socialize at an Olympic level.”
“Dealing with those kind of tough situations, it’s obviously part of growing and being a grown-up,” Miller said. “When you’re under the magnifying glass like that, there’s no way to really judge yourself too harshly in hindsight. Obviously, I could have said things differently, I could have done things differently. A lot of other people could have done things differently, too.
“I had chances to win, I was prepared. I don’t think I did anything dramatically as evil as it was portrayed,” he added. “But I think that’s part of being under the microscope that way, and I’m fully capable of dealing with it. 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.”
Four years later, skiing had a new star in Lindsey Vonn. But the spotlight found Miller once again, this time for all the right reasons. He won a medal of every color at the Vancouver Olympics, including a gold in the super combined. That gave him a total of five Olympic medals, more than any other U.S. skier.
Miller won his 33rd World Cup title, in the downhill at Beaver Creek, in December 2011. But he had microfracture surgery on his left knee in February 2012 and wound up missing the entire 2012-13 season.
The break re-energized him, giving him a chance to spend time with his wife and kids.
“Being away from the sport was really healthy for me,” Miller said. “I’ve been in it so long with so little time away that I was definitely taxed … to a point that I was getting frustrated at times. The fact is, if you’re going to do it, the process deserves better than that. Now I think I’m in a place where I can participate fully, and not put as much strain on myself.”
Miller accompanied the rest of the U.S. team to Portillo, Chile, and said his knee feels “perfect” as he readies for his return to competition later this month. Asked about his expectations for Sochi, Miller grinned as he cracked that he’s now motivated “entirely by money and medals.”
Turning serious, he said he intends to “kick (butt)” in what is almost certainly his last Olympics.
“Everyone looks for these big epiphanies,” he said. “I’ve spent lot of time and energy being a ski racer. I’ve earned the right to compete at a high level and I’ve spent a lot of pain and a lot of energy trying to develop these skills. The Olympics, to me, is just a great opportunity to enjoy that.
“It’s a perishable process, being a ski racer,” Miller said. “Until you’re all rotten or shriveled up, you should keep going. I’m pretty shriveled up, but I’m not all rotten. Not yet.”