I don’t know Bode Miller personally, though I know athletes and coaches who know him well. I do know alpine ski racing. I competed internationally in my youth and have worked with ski racers, ranging from juniors to Olympians, on the mental side of the sport for 25 years. And I have followed Bode’s career since he first stepped into those then-oddly shaped K2 skis back in the early 1990s.
Bode has always been my poster child for the attitude to have toward sports competition (and life, for that matter). Bode never cared about results, only about skiing “as fast as the natural universe will allow,” as Bode put it in his autobiography, Bode: Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun. He wasn’t afraid to fail or to fall. Bode always had a fundamental faith his road was the correct one for him even when others thought he had taken a wrong turn and gotten lost. And, more than anything, he knew who he was and was true to who he was. From the early days when he would rarely finish races and, despite his coaches’ urging, would not back it off a notch, to his breathtaking double silver medal performances in Salt Lake City in 2002, to his widely reported and criticized flameout in Turin in 2006, to his stunning performances in Vancouver, Bode was Bode for good, bad, or ugly.
So how did Bode arrive at this current junction in his journey, this crossroad of redemption and glory. It was an unlikely road in many ways. Bode was never the typical sort of ski racer growing up in New England. He was raised in a cabin with no running water or electricity in rural New Hampshire by rather hippyish parents. He was homeschooled until fourth grade. Bode never took ski lessons. And, oddly enough, competitive tennis seemed to be in his future because his parents owned a well-known tennis camp.
Regardless of which athletic road Bode took, he was destined to take the road less traveled. But he was not destined for ski-racing greatness. Bode was not phenom, having never competed at the Topolino Games, an international championship for racers 13 and under, and never won a medal at the World Junior Championships (in contrast to Lindsay Vonn who won gold and silver, respectively, at those events).
When he arrived at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Bode’s legend had yet to precede him onto the media stage, though he was obviously well known in the ski racing world, having competed in the 1998 Olympics and won his first World Cup race in 2001. His two silver medals in Salt Lake City thrust Bode’s skiing and his counterculture personality into the spotlight.
Bode continued to be a force on the international ski racing scene leading up to the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, but there was the feeling among many in the sport that, though he had great success in the intervening years, his contrarian side prevented him from truly dominating the sport from year to year.
As the media does with an athlete at every Olympics, it anointed him the “Face of the 2006 Olympics” and placed Atlas-like expectations (five gold medals) on his shoulders. And Bode accepted that burden, a mistake with 20/20 hindsight. He appeared on almost every conceivable magazine cover, was on television constantly, and was a ubiquitous presence on line. Even worse, Bode allowed himself to be commandeered by the advertising juggernaut (though he earned many millions of dollars in the process). In sum, Bode became a pop culture icon, a role that stood in sharp contradiction to his simple upbringing and his antiestablishment sensibilities.
Bode was always at his best when he lived his life on his own terms, when he was focused solely on Bode. Yet, heading into the 2006 Games, his life was no longer his own. He had, whether consciously or otherwise, sold his soul to a devil that he truly didn’t value. And it is a cautionary tale that even a strong-willed, backwoods denizen like Bode could be seduced by fame and fortune. Leading up to the Games, Bode seemed to lose perspective, lose focus, and, most harmfully, lose himself. His reported partying and his failure to win medals there were perhaps unconscious attempts to regain control of his life and to show everyone that, despite appearances, Bode Miller was his own man who couldn’t be bought or sold. Unfortunately, both the partying and poor results also kept him from being true to the ski racer in him that only cared about skiing as fast as he could.
Much transpired since 2006 for Bode, with both highs, that included a 2008 World Cup overall title and the birth of a daughter, and lows, including a career worst season in 2009, injuries, the appearance of burn-out, and talk of retirement.
Yet, one thing I have always admired about Bode is that, though he follows his own road, that road can take many forks. So, for 2010, Bode decided to leave his independent ski-racing life and rejoin the comforts – and constraints – of the U.S. Ski Team. Why such a shift? Perhaps it was the birth of his first child, or a wish for Olympic redemption after 2006, or the realization that it was too difficult or too lonely going it alone, or, at age 32, seeing the mortality of his career for the first time, or just plain growing up. Regardless, Bode was, once again, living his life on his terms, even though those terms had changed.
With the arrival of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, Bode was off the radar screen due to generally mediocre results on the World Cup this season. No Sirens-like seduction by the media, no Herculean expectations, just another opportunity for Bode to ski the way only Bode can. The result: Bode winning a complete set of Olympic medals (gold, silver, and bronze). But, more importantly, Bode having fun and describing his races the way he did during his previous heydays, not in terms of victories, but in that “absolutely amazing” feeling when “you…magically ski at your absolute best.” (thanks Wikipedia).
The long road that Bode Miller has traveled has not reached its conclusion, but just a rest stop known as redemption. But this redemption was not to his sport or his fans and certainly not to the media who placed him on Mt. Olympus and then summarily yanked him from its peak. Bode owes them nothing. Bode’s redemption comes from being true to himself and living his life on his own terms regardless of the consequences. It also comes from his accepting what life has throw at him with equanimity and learning its lessons to make the road smoother ahead.
So, Bode, enjoy the sweet elixir of victory on your own terms and appreciate your journey you’ve taken up till now. But, most importantly, realize that, whether racing down the snow-covered mountains of the world or with your daughter on a farm in New Hampshire, the road ahead will continue to be what it has been thus far for you, sometimes smooth, sometimes bumpy, but always interesting with unexpected vistas around the corner.