Bode Miller, ski tinkerer, wins silver in the super-G

Bode Miller, who added a silver medal to his tally in the super-G on Friday, is one of many Olympic athletes who embrace the technical materials side of their sport -- in this case his skis -- to reach maximum performance.

Stefano Rellandini/REUTERS
US skier Bode Miller races in the men's Alpine Skiing Super-G at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia. When he's not on the slopes, Miller, who won a silver medal in Friday's race, is known for embracing the technical side of his sport.

When Bode Miller decided to return to ski racing this season, the first person he told was his equipment manufacturer.

That was no coincidence -- nor was the silver medal he won in Friday's super-G, having won bronze in the opening event of the men’s alpine skiing program, the downhill.

Though he has begun to embrace his Olympic journey in comments that channel his inner Johnny Weir, that is not the only reason – or perhaps even the main reason – Miller came back.

Miller is a Ph.D. in the school of alpine skiing – an engineer whose real-word degree comes from pushing the boundaries of speed on slopes designed to eat him for lunch. Always driven by one overriding desire – to go as fast as is humanly possible on two strips of waxed fiberglass – the technical side of his sport enthralls and motivates him.

"He's really into it, and he wants to push it on the materials side," said Rainer Salzgeber, the racing director of Miller’s ski manufacturer, Head, in announcing Miller's return to racing over the summer.

To some Winter Olympians, paying attention to the “materials side” is a necessary evil – something they must do if they want to win, or at least not crash. As luger Tony Benshoof says, “when I’m the one riding the sled down the track at 95 m.p.h. I want to be the last one to turn that bolt.”

For others like Miller, it is part of the allure of winter sport, where the equipment is often a determining factor in who ends up being fastest or highest on race day.

“I like to be educated about why (the) equipment I have does what it does,” says Zach Lund, who is eighth heading into the last two heats of men’s skeleton tonight. “I want to know why, when I steer, it does this. I want to do my own runners. By knowing it, I’m close to it.”

To Miller it is such a labor of love that he was contracted to continue testing and tinkering with Head skis even if he had left the World Cup tour this year. But the task is so enormous that most athletes need help.

“On race day, you may have to test 30 different paraffin waxes. It’s impossible to do that” by yourself, says Kris Freeman, an American cross-country skier.

Yet science combines with an intuitive sense refined over years of competition. “Often times, when you step on a good ski, you know it,” says Freeman.

Getting to that point when everything feels right, though, is a process that consumes hours every day.

“It’s every night, fooling around with your stuff,” says luger Benshoof.

He tinkers with the angle of his blades to the ice, the weight and balance of the sled, and even how he should be sitting on the sled aerodynamically.

“It drives you crazy – trying to find that 1/10th of a second,” says Benshoof.

It is a manic desire to ensure that, on race day, the only thing that matters is your own skill. For Lund, that means “hours and hours” of sanding his runners to make sure they have no blemish.

“When you go to a track with beat-up runners, that’s drag” that can slow you down, he says.

In skeleton there are no millionaires, meaning racers can’t hire an army of technical coaches to help them hone their sleds.

“I wish I had help sometimes,” says American Katie Uhlaender, who sits ninth heading into tonight’s final two women’s skeleton heats.

But she’d never want to give up control entirely, she says: “Even if there was a coach who could tack care of it [the technical stuff], I’d be standing right beside him asking questions.”


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