Olympics: One-time bad boy Bode Miller in medals mix

By LOS ANGELES TIMES  • 
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Bode Miller

Bode Miller couldn’t get his son to sit still. Nine-month-old Nathaniel was squirming around the hotel room as if he were ready to jump in the start gate of the Sochi Olympic downhill.

If you tell the kid to do one thing, Bode explained, he does the opposite. Nathaniel is determined to have his own way.

“He’s like a salmon,” Miller said, “he wants to swim against the stream.”

Right on cue, Miller’s wife, Morgan, looks up and says what everyone is thinking: “I wonder where he gets that from?”

The scene, in a Colorado hotel room last fall, symbolized the coming-of-middle-age comeuppance for ski racing’s one-time bad boy. It wasn’t so long ago that Miller seemingly needed a dribble cup, and now he’s 36 and changing diapers? Bode is the grownup in the room — yeah, right.

Miller, the son of hippie parents in New Hampshire whose own free-spirited way has defined his skiing career, is in the Olympics again, his record fifth appearance for the U.S. Alpine team:

•  In 1998, still a teenage prodigy, Miller earned a surprise spot in the Nagano Olympics and posted a “did not finish” in slalom and giant slalom.

•  In 2002, at the Salt Lake Games, he jaw-dropped his way to two silver medals as he reminded people more of Evel Knievel than an accomplished ski racer.

•  In 2006, in the Italian Alps at the Turin Games, Miller was a five-medal prospect who disastrously miscalculated the world’s tolerance for large-scale precociousness when it’s not backed by results.

When Miller partied all night but didn’t produce any medals, he was billed “the undisputed buffoon” of the Turin Games and a “goofball on skis.” He soon left the U.S. team and went into the wilderness in search of whatever the Bode Millers of the world look for.

•  In 2010, at Vancouver, coaxed back to the mother ship by U.S. team coach Sasha Rearick, Miller finally put the pieces together for a redemptive two weeks in which he claimed gold, silver and bronze. At last, Miller had partnered his inner, organic skiing side with the top step of the Olympic podium.

He consolidated his legendary international status — Miller heads to Russia with 33 career World Cup race victories and two overall titles — with the only marker Americans understand: Olympic gold. That should have been the end of it, right there, at age 32, which is approaching AARP on the World Cup circuit.

Miller’s left knee would require microfracture surgery that would force him to miss all of the 2013 season. The idea that he could return in any credible form for the 2014 Sochi Games seemed farfetched; even more unfathomable was that he might lead the U.S. Alpine contingent as a doting father, devoted husband, role model and elder statesman.

Yet here he is, in Sochi. Adding “serious medal contender” to Miller’s plate makes the countdown to Sunday’s downhill in Rosa Khutor all the more exciting. Miller had the fastest time in practice yesterday on the 2.2-mile men’s downhill course.

“Unfortunately, they don’t give you medals for training runs,” Miller said. “If they did, I would be psyched. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to come out here and ski well the first run. I just have to keep trimming time.”

Miller appears genuinely rejuvenated and ready to rip it. He lost 20 pounds and shaved nanoseconds off his start gate-to-finish line time. He is eligible to compete in all five men’s events, and although his best slalom and giant-slalom days are behind him, it is conceivable he could triple in the same three events he nailed in Vancouver: super combined (gold), super-G (silver) and downhill (bronze).

“My skiing is generally pretty solid now,” he said. “I feel good. My fitness is good.”

More impressive than his return from injury, however, is how Miller has gone from snow pariah to ski-team ballast. He is a mentor for Mikaela Shiffrin, America’s 18-year-old rising star who recently tweeted that Miller was her skiing hero and inspiration.

“Bode is very cognizant of his stature and cognizant of the legacy he wants to leave,” said Luke Bodensteiner, executive vice president of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “And he’s got some unfinished business.”

With Miller, however, serenity is relative. His comeback is also fraught with heartbreak, legal fees and complications. He endured the death last year of his younger brother, Chelone, to a seizure. He has two children by two women and is now married to the mother of neither. He heads to Sochi coming off a custody battle over his young son.

He is, though, a fuller-formed Bode, which seemed obvious as he flipped his boy around on the couch. Miller has matured, yet refuses to give back the childlike innocence that has allowed him to keep dreaming big.

“My confidence is imaginary,” Miller said. “I had it since I was a baby. I just always thought I could do stuff I couldn’t do.”

He then glanced at his toddler son. “Like him,” Bode said. “He’ll try to do all kinds of (stuff) he can’t do.”

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