US skier looks for his second chance

BOSTON — Bode Miller made no secret of his distaste for the Olympics, which he regarded as an overly commercialized winter carnival where skiing was just another sideshow.

A crusty, iconoclastic, backwoods New Hampshire “live-free-or-die” kind of guy, Miller much preferred the World Cup circuit where the vibe was all about skiing and where he excelled. He won the World Cup title in 2005 and again in 2008, only the second American ever to win multiple titles. His 31 World Cup victories are more than any other American skier.

That considerable success, even in a sport where almost all the passion is provided by European fans, should have provided Miller with an extraordinary athletic legacy back home. But it didn’t exactly work out that way, thanks to those distasteful Olympics.

The problem didn’t manifest itself at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games where Miller won a pair of silver medals and the hearts of American fans when he missed a slalom gate and, though out of contention, still trekked back up the mountain to complete his run.

By the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy, Miller’s success had made him the Olympic poster boy. But even before the Olympics opened, he seemed intent on undermining his newfound and hard-earned stature. In various interviews, he revealed that he had competed drunk and that he ultimately raced only to please himself, style being more important than results. And it kept getting worse. In an interview with Newsweek a few months before the Olympics, he trashed many of the sponsors of the U.S. Ski Association as “unbelievable a—holes … rich, cocky, wicked, unbelievably conceited, super-right-wing Republicans” and debunked the Olympics as “not a pure thing.” He even admitted that he would prefer to withdraw. “If it wasn’t such a clusterf—k for me to pull out now, I’d definitely consider it,” he said. “The reasons I’m going are really impure and that definitely bothers me.”

But apparently not quite enough, because he took the big sponsors’ money along with the U.S. Ski Association support, and dutifully cooperated with major media, appearing on “60 Minutes” and posing for Newsweek and Time Covers — all of it predicated on his prospects at the 2006 Olympics.

Miller did show up in Turin, in body if not in spirit. He partied hard and very publicly and skied indifferently in his five races — with no medals, one disqualification and two DNFs (“did not finish”). In other words, he took all the money and then didn’t run. It seemed a betrayal and his sanctimony nothing more than naked hypocrisy, Miller became one of the rare Olympians to arrive cast as a hero and depart scorned as an anti-hero.

A year later he officially broke with the U.S. Ski Team, continuing to race, but as an American independent. The following season he won his second World Cup, an accomplishment that, for all the glory, largely served as a reminder of what Miller could accomplish when he deigned to make the effort.

But last season, hampered by injury and regarded by some as “a burnout,” Miller failed to win a single race. He even skipped the final four tour events and conceded he was contemplating retirement. Most observers concurred that it was time or even past time for Miller to hang up the skis, particularly with another of those distasteful Olympics looming in 2010.

But on Thursday, Miller, who will turn 32 in October, demonstrated that he remains the contrarian. He announced that he had put aside any retirement plans and that not only he would rejoin the World Cup circuit, but also the U.S. Ski Team with his sights set on a third Olympics next February in Vancouver.

Miller said that the decision about retirement hadn’t come easily. He found he could relate to NFL star quarterback Bret Favre whose on-again, off-again retirements were mocked by many journalists and fans. But in the end, he said, “I still had some more to give.” That apparently surprised him less than that the team was willing to welcome him back into what U.S. men’s coach Sasha Rearick called the family. Rearick said that Miller had been an “inspirational” figure to U.S. skiers and that his tremendous skills — “speed and experience” — will provide a training bonanza for everybody on the team.

Like virtually all athletes whose missteps have followed them, Miller said he wasn’t interested in “a regurgitation of the past," only in looking forward. When pressed about whether he had regrets or felt the need to apologize for anything, he said, “I don’t think you can undo anything.”

And Miller’s ambivalence about the Olympics still shone through, as he would only concede, “If I’m qualified for it, I intend to go.” On a team with three younger men who have won World Cup races, he is no shoo-in for Vancouver. Moreover, he admits he is not in racing shape and won’t join the World Cup tour for the opening race in Austria on the last weekend in October. If he does make the Olympic team, there will be no mega-sponsorships or magazine covers this time around. There is a bigger name in American skiing right now: Lindsay Vonn, who has now won back-to-back women’s World Cup titles. Back at the 2006 Turin Games, before she was a superstar, Vonn was the anti-Bode; she was hospitalized after a high-speed crash in a training run and got out of her hospital bed to race the downhill.

Miller may be right, that words can be hollow and can’t erase memories of the Turin Olympics. “My actions are going to speak much louder than any apology could,” he said. “I hope it’s what I’m judged by.” There’s an excellent chance of that. American sports fans embrace second chances and love tales of redemption.