Daredevil American skier is finally besting the Alpine set

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

If you hope to win at the alpine skiing world championships taking place in Bormio, Italy, here's a risky recipe you might want to avoid:

First race: Nearly crash and ski off course. Manage to recover. Win gold.

Second race: Lose a ski at the top of the first run going 70 m.p.h. Continue down nearly the whole course on one ski. Win applause from crowd, disapproval from coach. No medal.

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Third race: Beat the competition by 0.44 seconds to become the first American ever to capture world championship gold in alpine skiing's signature event, the downhill.

Then again, you're not Bode Miller, the cowboy of skiing who is poised to become the first American to lasso the overall World Cup title in 22 years. Of course, it's anybody's guess whether Mr. Miller will actually capture the crown. During the last two seasons, he was also leading, but faded to finish second in 2003 and fourth in 2004.

But what may matter more than wins to his legion of fans is Miller's maverick style. Though Miller enjoys little name recognition in the United States, Europeans - especially Austrians - are wild about him. "The guy stops to put gas in his car and a crowd forms," says Jack McEnany, neighbor and co-author of a forthcoming book "Bode: Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun." But maybe even Austrians have tired of watching their countrymen ski flawless runs and sweep the medals podium. Enter Miller: Tearing downhill at 80 m.p.h. with arms flailing, he's as likely to ski off course as he is to win. Either way, there's bound to be some excitement.

Going where few dare

Though his results are unpredictable, Miller's method is not: Take risks your competition doesn't dare take, and then try to hold on by the skin of your chattering teeth.

While others have criticized his approach, the Easton, N.H., native has stuck to it with unflagging self-confidence - some would say arrogance - and an irreverent worship of fun. What looked like repeated and sometimes intentional failure was arguably part of a larger effort to discover how to create and carry more speed than any of his competitors - something he seems to enjoy more than winning itself.

Attacking each course with calculated stinginess, he trims fat off the serpentine arcs carved by other racers - most of whom are at a loss to emulate what took Miller a lifetime of reckless careening to master, says his prep school coach, Chip Cochrane.

While Miller's peers were conscientiously performing technique drills, he was tearing down double-black diamond runs in search of vision-blurring velocity.

It was then that Miller perfected the art of near-crashing, learning to recover from positions that would have sent his competition into the trees. He also developed a unique sensitivity that enables him to react instinctively to changes in the terrain. "It's almost like he has little brains in his feet," says Mr. Cochrane, who coached Miller for three of his four years at Maine's Carrabassett Valley Academy (CVA).

That sensitivity and ability to recover have helped Miller become one of the best skiers in the world. With a month of racing to go, Miller has the most cumulative World Cup points of any skier on the season-long circuit.

Even without an overall World Cup to his name, Miller is still the most decorated US skier in history, with four world championship gold medals and two Olympic silver medals.

But that success and all its trappings - a free Audi every year, a $500,000 endorsement deal with Italian pastamaker Barilla, and more - doesn't seem to have made Miller forget who he is or why he's skiing.

He's never lost his pure enjoyment of the sport, says longtime friend Cameron Shaw-Doran, adding that that's made it easier for Miller to weather others' criticisms and expectations.

In the off-season, Miller returns to his grandmother's former house in Easton, N.H. - which he now owns and shares gratis with Mr. Shaw-Doran and a cousin - and works at his family's tennis camp.

It was here in the shadow of the White Mountains that Miller's parents fostered a culture of independence and freedom for Bode and his three siblings.

"In general, we'd let them do as much as they wanted to do, as long as they wouldn't cut their fingers off," says Miller's father, Woody, holding up a favorite picture of his toddler son sawing away at a pile of lumber with a sharp-toothed bow saw.

Chasing a dream

One big thing Miller wanted to do - from age 5 - was follow in the footsteps of his ski-racing grandmother, a US Ski Team member in the 1940s. While other kids may have been dreaming of becoming firemen, "For Bode, the most logical thing for him to be was an Olympic ski racer," says his mother, Jo.

Miller's dad admits he wasn't keen on the idea of his wiry kid taking on such a demanding, dangerous sport. "It's hard for me to imagine they enjoy going 96 m.p.h. down an icy mountain," says Woody, sitting cross-legged in untied tennis shoes, a cup of tea warming his weathered palm.

But after being pressured by his father to enter medical school, an idea that he abhorred, the senior Mr. Miller had no specific plans for his kids' futures. Both he and Jo, though long divorced, still share that principle: Let your kids do what they love.

In this childhood environment, Bode acquired a certain stubbornness and tendency to speak his mind - often in colorful language - which has irked more than a few along the way. After butting heads over training ideas with his junior high coach, Miller asked him point-blank if he was "[bleepin'] stupid," promptly getting himself kicked off the team.

Not intimidated

CVA Headmaster John Ritzo rejects the popular impression that Miller was a wild, out-of-control kid, however.

"I wouldn't say he was a saint, but ... if you've got people who are willing to hurl themselves down [the infamous Austrian downhill run] Hahnenkamm, you're not going to intimidate them," Mr. Ritzo says.

In Miller's case, you're probably not apt to imitate him, either - even if you're Austrian.

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