If Lance Armstrong has come to define the American champion abroad--single-minded, unwavering, respected but not loved--then Bode Miller is the anti-Armstrong. The 27-year-old American skier is, above all, not single-minded. One day he's hellbent on victory, the next he's pursuing skiing's equivalent of "the perfect wave," an esthetically beautiful but not necessarily winning run. Even Europeans, tired of Austrian dominance on the mountains, are cheering him on. While the Austrians are skiing's consummate technicians, Miller is the opposite. "He's an artist," says Gilles Brenier, head of the French men's alpine team. "Bode unleashes everything he has, gives everything to the limit--it's the inspiration of the moment--and voila, the canvas is painted."
Miller, a relative unknown before his two-silver-medal turn at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake, is having a breakout season. He has won six World Cup races while becoming only the second man in history to win in all four racing disciplines--downhill, slalom, giant slalom and Super-G--in a single season. Entering the homestretch last Sunday, with just five races remaining over eight days, Miller maintained a slim lead over Austria's Benjamin Raich in his bid to become the first American World Cup champ since Phil Mahre and Tamara McKinney back in 1983. Raich says he welcomes the challenge. "It's good because these races are called 'World Cup' and not 'Austria Cup'," he says.
More than just a title is at stake. With the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, less than a year away, Miller and the resurgent U.S. ski team (three different Americans won two medals each at last month's World Championships) might finally head off to an Olympics with as much panache as America's ever-glamorous figure skaters. Miller's performance at the recent Worlds was classic Bode. He won gold medals in his first two races, the downhill and the Super-G. Then he racked up a stunning four straight DNFs ("did not finish")--shorthand for veering off course, missing a gate or falling. Yet it was during one of those botched races that Miller, dubbed "the cowboy of the mountain" by the Italian press, stole the show. Losing a ski at the start, an automatic disqualification, Miller kept barreling down the course for another 90 seconds on his single ski. The feat sent fans into a frenzy, left rivals shaking their heads in bemusement and infuriated his coach. "It was very risky for no reward," said Phil McNichol, coach of the U.S. men's alpine team. "I was, like, 'What is he thinking?' If he'd have hurt himself on that run..." But even the coach can recognize the payback in "myth and hype." Even Bode isn't always sure why he does what he does. "On some days, I only want to win and I don't care if I ski like an ass or I cheat or everybody else dies or the wind blows them off the course," he says. "On other days, I just want to ski well and I don't care if I get 20th place."
Miller never actually settles for 20th. His worst result this season was 14th. But finishing runs has been a problem. While his rival Raich has successfully navigated every event he has entered, Miller is just as likely to crash out of a race as he is to medal. Once regarded as a slalom specialist, he has shredded that reputation by posting DNFs in eight of the nine slalom events.
Falls and missed gates may be the inevitable price of a thrilling, go-for-broke style that always has Miller up on his toes for maximum maneuverability. "Bode looks like Rudolf Nureyev, while everyone else looks like sumo wrestlers," says Konrad Bartelski, a former top British racer turned TV commentator. As a result, though, he is pirouetting between glory and failure every race. Miller seems to regard the two results as flip sides of a coin and insists that medals aren't really his goal. "If you want a medal," he jokes, "you can just steal somebody's." But he wasn't kidding when he confessed to the ski press that he used his first World Championship gold medal as a weight to stabilize a wobbly toilet seat.
Miller's unconventional ways seem a natural outgrowth of an unconventional upbringing. He was raised in the New Hampshire woods, living in a cabin without electricity or running water. He was home-schooled until third grade, but later began boarding at one of New England's premier ski academies. He graduated to the elite junior-skiing circuit, but not from high school when he didn't complete an assignment he regarded as stupid. Miller wishes he could be just as uncompromising today. He despises the cult of celebrity that surrounds him and makes no secret of his distaste for his many obligations to the press, sponsors and, sometimes, his more demanding fans. "I don't want to waste time on s--t that isn't gratifying," he says.
Miller would love to transform racing into something more fun, with ski festivals--clinics, banquets, concerts--alongside the competitions. Bode's dream tour would be so laid-back that, presumably, nobody would fuss over his penchant for late-night revelry, even on the eve of a big race. To Miller, racing is revelry, too; he ignores his coach's advice to skip an occasional event so as to preserve his energy and body. "Bode lives so much in the moment that goals are difficult," says McNichol. "He's totally unwilling to look beyond what's happening today."
Miller views himself differently. He does, for example, look ahead to this week's final races in Lenzerheide, Switzerland; but what he sees might not please his coach. Bode says it doesn't really matter if he bests Raich for the World Cup title. "At this point I really don't need to win the overall," he says. "I feel that at least for myself and most of the other guys on World Cup, I was the best skier this year, whether I were to fall right now and hurt myself or quit or whatever." And given Miller's history of clutch performances--four World Championship golds, two Olympic silver medals in Salt Lake City--"whatever" figures, at the very least, to be memorable.