Photography by Bruno Staub
Bode Miller gives us insight into the inner workings of what drives him, then & now.
Imagine accelerating down an icy Alps World Cup course faster than a speeding bullet with two razor sharp planks underfoot chattering like a freight train. A shadow suddenly changes the light, an unanticipated rut in the snow tips you back an inch, an infinitesimal mistake can result in sudden death.
As an elite athlete you’re super fit, one of the greatest and the fastest of all time, and yet in a mere 25 seconds (a quarter of the way down) your body is maxed out. Your legs are burning. The blood is rushing from your head to accommodate the enormous needs in your massive muscles and you may even feel light headed. According to Bode Miller, the number one American skier of all time decorated with six Olympic medals, during the one and a half minute downhill, the race seems even shorter than those 110 seconds. “At these speeds (90mph) your brain is working so quickly and your body is trying to keep up so fatigue rapidly overtakes you,” says Miller.
But downhill racing is a mere fraction of Bode’s feats all those years on the World Cup Circuit. He was not a one trick wonder. The record he set in 2005 by winning in each of four World Cup disciplines (Slalom, GS, Super G and Downhill) is often overlooked. Later when a fifth event was added, the Combined, Bode Miller won all five disciplines in a single season.
The skill set is extremely different for these varied races and most pros are able to specialize in only one for their entire career, let alone come up with the energy and capability to race all the events at each World Cup. As Bode says, “It’s like a track star who does long jump, high jump, the 100 meter sprint, and javelin…it’s one thing to compete, but to beat the best in the world in these different events requires more than sheer athleticism (of which he has an abundance) because the mental component and the tactics and ability to compete are crucial.” The slalom requires intense fast tight turns, the downhill demands transcendent speed and weathering the steeps, the GS is the midrange of the two. You get the idea. Once he won all five events in a 17 day period. Mr. Impossible.
Defying the naysayers who questioned his technique, (including coaches, press, comrades) Bode’s non-conformist approach, his creativity, and reckless abandon during the races set him apart as a champion. “The idea was to be unbeatable,” Bode says. “I had to do it my way. Their way may have worked, but I had to find out for myself.” Like Edison, who said he discovered 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb before succeeding, Bode says, “I figured out 10,000 things that didn’t work. In racing if one thing goes wrong it can be catastrophic. The margins in racing are so small. I may have failed a 100 times, but I knew in my heart that I was willing to take the risk to be the best.”
When asked if he were to define the total commitment that being the best-of-all-time entails to his teenage son years from now (he has children who are 7, 4, 2 years old and 10 months old), he doesn’t hesitate: “Lack of quit. Athletes can be mentally broken. If you just won’t quit, you can overcome all the adversity you encounter.”
It’s not unlike a tennis match, another sport where Bode excels since learning at his grandparents tennis academy in Franconia, N.H. where he grew up. “In tennis, you lose hundreds of points. You have to lose many matches. You have to never give up.” At one point Bode even tried out for a wild card spot at the US Open Tennis tournament. “Tennis makes many of the same demands on your body as ski racing: balance, explosive power, mental strength and most of all, it is always different.”
What other athletes might call perseverance, Bode calls his ability to hang in there, “stubbornness. I knew it was a long journey and I had to be stubborn to endure and attain that high level.” Six Olympic medals. Five different Olympic games, beginning in 1998 and all the way to Sochi in 2014. Gold at Vancouver in the Super Combined. Winner of 33 World Cup Races. Two overall World Cup Crowns. Mr. Impossible.
His is a Cinderella story, from humble beginnings in a log cabin his parents built in the New Hampshire woods with no plumbing or electricity. “We did have running water. It was just outside,” he jokes, mentioning a stream near the house. His childhood was modest but not unhappy. With his three siblings, the forests, hills, and streams were their playground, which established a close relationship with nature and his environment. Early on, his coaches at the ski academy in Maine where he received a scholarship realized that Bode had a more intimate relationship with the mountains than his peers. He’d learned to ski on his own on hand-me-down skis and boots that were too big for him. He was forced to use his whole body to make a turn, jumping up to unweight the big skis. His analytical approach was beginning to hone itself at age 17 as he studied his own snowboarding equipment. He observed how easy it was to make turns on this cumbersome board, much bigger in comparison to straight plank skis. He noticed the waist of the snowboard where it narrowed and how the tip and tails grabbed the snow in the turn. At K2, which supplied his skis, he identified a beginner ski that also had this unusual shape and asked to use it. He was told these skis didn’t work for racers, and the ‘parabolic shape’ was a crutch. They had tried it years ago and it failed. Bode wanted to try it again anyway, much to the cynics’ dismay. No one else on the junior or pro race circuit used shaped skis. No one else had the foresight of Bode. That year at the junior Olympics, he won a remarkable three out of four races. Everyone was astounded. “I got on those skis and it was a completely different ballgame,” Miller remembers. Even now, 20 years later, Bode recalls he won by an unheard of two seconds in these junior Olympic races: that is the power of Bode’s prescience. “I wouldn’t have made the Olympic team without those skis,” which are now the standard for all skis, pro and recreational. By the next year all the racers wanted Bode’s kind of skis, and ironically, his innovation caused him to shift back in the results to the middle of the pack again, as the older kids began winning with the shaped skis too.
Now Bode has his sights set on another speed sport with two minute times: horse racing. “It is inherently a sport that doesn’t encourage change,” he says. Enter Bode Miller. Thinking outside the box is his specialty. He intends to bring sports science, nutrition, and physics to a sport he says is well suited to adaptations. “The records in horse racing haven’t been broken in 30 years. If that occurred in another sport, track or swimming, it would be crazy if that was happening. I want to figure out how to move the needle.”
And Bode will likely figure it out. The same way he conceived how to design a better jacket. A simple thing, a ski jacket. But Bode supposed if you could use top quality materials and make small batches and design for 100% functionality in every situation, on the mountain and out to dinner, that a better jacket might be had. His designs for Aztech Mountain clothes are made in Italy using the latest innovative fabrics. Aztech, named after the steepest trail on Aspen Mountain where the World Cup finals are run and where Bode debuted as commentator for NBC, a gig he will continue.
Asked what makes his other business venture, Bomber skis special, Bode says, “We have no trade secrets. There’s no mystery to making a ski. We don’t try to trim costs on the materials and make money on volume like most ski manufacturers. We use the very best materials, (wood, glass, rubber) available and make each ski by hand in Italy.” If you have any doubts about what this ski will do for you check out Bode as he channels James Bond in a Bomber film on Youtube.
Now, at 40, Bode enjoys testing and innovating just as he did with his young body constantly pushing himself out of his comfort zone. And now as then, he has fun with it. He says if you find your motivation, you can take whatever consequences are inevitable. “To pursue that high level, I had to think outside what’s happening at the moment.”
Asked if he sees a resemblance in his career to Lewis Hamilton, the top Formula One race car driver, who also defies conformity by racing with a technique he developed when he was young: brake at the end of the turn rather than the beginning. “I see a lot of similarities. I would come into the turn carrying maximum speed,” Bode says of his unique racing approach. “I would sit back and then deal with what happens. In skiing, if you brake too soon, there’s no gas pedal to regain your speed. This approach gave me the ability to gain time and beat the best in the world. It helped me figure out how to win.” Even if it drove his coaches crazy.
Recently, Bode Miller told the US Ski Team that he is done. “It was a long stretch,” he says, “I started when I was 19. I saw two generations of racers come and go.” He has the longest pro ski career in history at 18 years. He is the oldest man ever to win an Olympic Alpine medal.
But life’s meaning comes in many forms and, like a race course, it changes often. Now, with his wife, Morgan Beck, a pro volleyball player, he says, “we are a team 100%. And (referring to his four children) we are outnumbered.” He used to lift his two youngest as weights when he was training for skiing. He’d jump on the trampoline with them. He’d chase them around. “I still do that,” he says, “I drive them everywhere and get them to bed and get them up and ready for school.” Yes, even Mr. Impossible does that.
And all the while, as NBC commentator, ski inventor, ski wear designer, horserace game-changer, dad and husband, he still has time to run his Turtle Ridge Foundation, an organization he created for under privileged and disabled children. “You always want to give back, and this is an important piece of my life.” He runs an annual golf and tennis classic in California where he lives that helps fund the charity.
Racing a World Cup Downhill at 90 mph, it is very hard to stop. Akin to Newton’s law of motion: A Bode in motion stays in motion. And Bode isn’t stopping anytime soon.
Jan Hadwen Hubbell is an award winning writer, journalist and poet.
Her screenplay, A Perfect Gentleman, has won five major awards including the L.A. Film Festival for best comedy.
The Democracy of Poets, in which she is featured, was a finalist at the Colorado Book Awards.
She was chosen for Sugar Mule’s “Women Writing Nature” poetry series.
Previously, she was a business writer on Wall Street.