Miller emerges as America's best alpine medal hope
Tuesday, January 29th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
Until this winter, Bode Miller tasted a lot of snow and little success.
Brash, confident, stubborn, some would say reckless, he has lived on the edge through the twists and turns of the slalom, and usually crashed somewhere along the way.
Austrian great Herman Maier, a master at skiing on the brink of disaster, wonders how Miller ever finishes a race.
``He is going everywhere and he is all over the place, like a rodeo,'' Maier said.
At 24, Miller has tempered his approach ever so slightly and ended an 18-year American drought in the World Cup slalom and giant slalom. In the process, he has emerged as the top U.S. medal threat in alpine skiing at the Salt Lake City Games.
Miller carries the all-or-nothing mindset of a downhill racer into the sport's most technical of disciplines.
``It's part of my personality,'' he said, ``but it's also a little bit of a misinterpretation of body language, I think, because I don't feel like a spaz, I just look like one.''
Finishing a race had been a challenge, let alone winning one.
For two years, Miller failed to get a single point in a World Cup slalom.
Injuries added to his woes. In 2000, a torn rotator cuff ended his season after less than a month. Last year, while his swashbuckling style continued to thwart his slalom attempts, he did manage four top 10 finishes in the giant slalom.
Then at the world championships in St. Anton, Austria, he was fourth after the slalom portion of the combined event, but crashed in the downhill, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
The injury healed without surgery, and after strenuous rehabilitation, Miller seemed his old self when he crashed twice in a NorAm event at the Loveland Ski Area in Colorado last November. A week later, he crashed in the second run in Aspen at the season's first World Cup slalom.
However, the following day, in another World Cup slalom on the same hill, he was second, the first podium finish by an American in the event since 1988.
Miller discovered he was able to harness his trademark abandon just enough to finish and still be fast _ very fast.
``He needed to gain some experience to really sort things out,'' U.S. men's technical coach Jesse Hunt said. ``Now that he's changed his tactics and his approach, he's gained another level of confidence. He knows that he doesn't have to risk everything all the time.''
Four World Cup victories later _ three in the slalom and one in the giant slalom _ the young New Englander could become the first U.S. Olympic gold medalist in the slalom since Phil and Steve Mahre finished 1-2 at the 1984 Sarajevo Games.
He also is a strong contender in the giant slalom and the combined.
``I guess it doesn't feel like a breakthrough at all,'' Miller said. ``It's more a culmination of a lot of years. At some point, it just gets a little bit ridiculous that you're not doing what you should be doing, and it's nice to have that finally kind of turn and go the way I want it to.''
Until Miller, no U.S. skier had won a World Cup slalom or giant slalom since 1983. His emergence in events once dominated by the likes of Ingemar Stenmark and Alberto Tomba coincides with the first Winter Olympics in the United States since Lake Placid in 1980.
``It's going to be huge,'' Miller said. ``To have it in your own country _ the excitement, the expectations, the attention. I love it. I love it more than anything.''
If there is undue pressure on being a home-snow favorite, he doesn't show it.
``I'll go in with pretty relaxed expectations of myself,'' he said. ``I'll try to have fun and charge. That shouldn't be too hard for me to do.''
Born in Easton, N.H., Miller has been charging full-bore since he climbed on skis at nearby Cannon Mountain at age 3.
Hunt has known Miller since the then-18-year-old skier burst onto the scene with a bronze medal in the slalom at the U.S. championships in 1996. Hunt calls Miller ``an amazing kid,'' if not a perfect student.
``We've had a long relationship. We've had dialogue right along about where he needs to go. Sometimes he's buying in, and sometimes he's learning through experience,'' Hunt said. ``More often than not now I think he's willing to listen. But he's still a pretty stubborn kid.
``He definitely has a mind of his own. I think that's what makes him as good as he is.''
On Dec. 9 in Val d'Isere, France, Miller became the first U.S. skier to win a giant slalom since Phil Mahre in 1983. The next day, in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, Miller won the slalom, the first to do so since Steve Mahre that same season.
He won a slalom Jan. 6 at Adelboden, Switzerland, and another, under the lights, Jan. 22 at Schladming, Austria.
Miller, who shares an apartment in Europe with fellow U.S. slalom hopeful Erick Schlopy, expects more of himself than anyone else does. The Olympics are only a stepping stone in his grand plan.
``One of my goals has been to increase the popularity of skiing in the United States,'' Miller said, ``and an Olympic gold would do that because the number of viewers would increase. But my biggest goal is to be the best American ski racer in history.''
That title won't come for a while.
``He's got 23 more World Cup victories to catch up with Phil,'' Hunt said, ``so he's got some work to do.''