January 27, 2005

The White Circus #3: Blowing Up The Lab: Why Bode Miller is even better than you think (plus a few comments on the 2005 WC season)

The 2005 World Cup season is just about at its halfway point, and about to head into the ski racing version of the All-Star break: the World Championships, being held this year in Bormio, Italy. The Worlds means a break of about two weeks from the World Cup schedule, a lot of pageantry, some looking forward--the hills and courses being used for the Worlds will also be used in next year's Winter Olympics--and a little looking back, as everyone takes stock of the season so far. And, without a doubt, the biggest noise in the men's World Cup this year has been Bode Miller of the United States. Since the season started in October, Bode Miller has been the man to catch. No one was very surprised when he won the season opener, a giant slalom in Soelden, Austria; he'd won the same race the year before, after all, and he was the reigning World Cup giant slalom champion. But Miller had never won a World Cup downhill or super G, and everyone expected that he'd lose his lead when the White Circus came to North America and the speed events got under way. Miller had other plans. He won the season's first downhill in Lake Louise on November 27, then turned around and did it again with a victory in the super G the next day. In so doing, he became the first American man, and one of only five men in the world, to have career victories in all five World Cup events. The Circus moved on to Beaver Creek where Miller took a modest second place in the super G before claiming another downhill victory on the Birds of Prey course. He claimed two more victories in December--in slalom and giant slalom--turned in three more top-ten finishes, skied out in a few races, and on average did much better than his competitors. Well before the New Year, pundits were saying that the man with the one-two-three-four punch already had an insurmountable lead in the World Cup standings. Miller himself was quick to point out that anything can happen in ski racing--equipment problems, bad weather forcing race cancellations, a season-ending injury, or even a bad flu--and that he had a long way to go before end of the season. And, in fact, January was a tough month for Miller, who didn't get any wins, turned in top-ten results in four races--but failed to finish in five. Meanwhile, Austria's Benni Raich was slowly creeping up in the standings, and as he now stands within a hundred points of the lead, it seems like Miller's disclaimer was prudent. But regardless of who takes home the crystal globe in March, this has still been Miller's year, in intangible ways that may not show up in the record books, but that register where it matters the most: in Bode Miller's heart and mind. Bode Miller's name first became known in the United States in the 2002, where he claimed two silver medals as the only hardware that the US Ski Team's alpine skiers brought home from the Salt Lake City Olympics. One was in GS; the other, most memorably, was in the combined, which requires racers to compete in one downhill and two slalom runs for the lowest total time. Already known as a bold skier with ample raw talent but unpredictable results, Miller turned in a performance that has become replay fodder whenever clips of the Salt Lake City Olympics are shown. Running third in the downhill portion of the combined, laid over close to horizontal in a big left-footer turn, Miller lost the edge on his inside ski. His skis shot sideways, to the outside of the turn, and his right hip landed on the snow. And then, in much less time than it takes to tell it, he was up and on his way to the finish area, where he smiled for the cameras and tapped his chest to mimic a rapidly beating heart. The thriller moment caught the attention of the audience, but it didn't get Miller a medal. The mistake had cost him badly, and he was in fifteenth place at the end of the downhill portion, with a 2.44 second gap between him and the leader, Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt. The gap remained through the first slalom run, as Aamodt skied fast and clean, while Miller thrashed around and nearly crashed again. Then Miller pulled together a second slalom run that was simply brilliant. It had everything. It was fast, it was aggressive, and yet perfectly smooth. As Miller made his way through the gates, it seemed that surely he must reach the limit, that any second he would skid, slip, falter or flail. But he didn't. He skied it clean, and came from fifteenth place back to second place, just 0.28 seconds off Aamodt's gold-medal time. Ever since then, and even before, most observers have focused on Bode Miller as the wild man. On paper, the only thing predictable about him was his unpredictability, as he alternated good race results with crashes. Observers, even coaches, saw the good results and wondered when he'd settle down and become more consistent. Surely, the reasoning went, total success was simply a matter of losing the wild-man factor. But they weren't looking at a wild man. Miller has proven that this season, to anyone with the eyes to see. The history of alpine ski racing has plenty of wild men (and more than a few wild women). They're the ones who go big and live bold, who take insane chances and reap big rewards. They're undisciplined and erratic, usually big partiers, often indifferent to their training, with a big load of talent that allows them to make it up as they go, and occasionally come up with a big result. We see their big moments in the big races, and remember the names--Franz Klammer, Peter Muller, Ken Read, Bill Johnson, Picabo Street--and we understand them, or we think we do. All you have to do, it seems, is to be crazy enough and lucky enough, point ‘em down the hill and go for it. None of it seems planned or systematic, none of it calculated except for the initial decision to go for broke. Bode Miller, to the casual observer, fit right into that mold. But Miller wasn't making it up. He was onto something. In 1996, competing in the Junior Olympics, he ditched his conventional race skis and raced instead on a pair of recreational shaped skis. Other competitors laughed, but not for long, as Miller won the giant slalom and super G titles by huge margins. He modified his gear in inexplicable ways, including stuffing Powerbars into the heels of his boots. He has a long history of trying things that conventional wisdom says can't be done, and of persisting at them long after coaches have told him that what he's trying can't work. That got him labeled by some as being blindly stubborn, but the truth is, he had conviction. He had a vision, and he believed in it. It wasn't blindness; Miller was just seeing something that others missed. One of my favorite mindless movies is called The Giant Claw, a 1957 film about a giant bird that looks like a rubber chicken and that starts the film with attacks on airplanes before moving on to major cities and general world destruction. The funniest part of this unintentional comedic masterpiece is a series of scenes in a lab, as white-coated scientists search for a solution to the crisis. Each scene is pretty much the same: machinery revs up with whooshes and hums, gizmos start spinning, then sparks fly, the lab blows up with a bang and a flash, and the narrator solemnly intones: “Failure.” And that's Bode Miller. Not a wild man, but a scientist: a mad scientist as long as he keeps blowing up the lab, but a visionary once his vision has proven to be right. Imagine a microbiologist, working in the era before electron microscopes. Now imagine what happens when that same microbiologist suddenly gets the tool to make the vision real. Things happen, quite suddenly to those who haven't been paying attention, and what was nonsense becomes the new truth--and the stubborn fool who found it becomes a genius. Is Bode Miller a genius? That's a big word to toss around, but without a doubt, he has an ability to imagine new accomplishments that few in ski racing have ever matched. He belies the brain-dead speed freak stereotype with a sharp intelligence and a historical knowledge of his sport that is uncommon in active elite racers. Brains and vision and hard work, and a lab where the equipment consists of the mountain, his gear, and his own body--and a willingness to try and fail, again and again, as long as the failure is bringing him closer to the success that he can only see in his imagination. That's where it's come from, all of Bode Miller's amazing success of the 2005 season, and none of it has been sudden, and none of it has been unearned. He's right where he planned to be, right where he worked to be: on top of the world, with everybody looking up at him--and most of them scratching their heads and wondering how it happened. The World Cup is certainly still up for grabs, just as Miller predicted in December. It's entirely possible that it will go to Raich, or even to Hermann Maier, currently over three hundred points back in third place. If it does go to someone other than Miller, there will be those who resort to the old stereotypes or invent some new ones: Miller the choker, perhaps. And, once again, they'll be wrong. That's not the sound of choking you hear coming from the mountains of Europe. It's just the sound of Bode Miller, blowing up the lab. Since the World Cup season is half over--more than half over, if we count the number of events--it's time to revisit my beginning-of-season predictions and see how I'm doing Overall, my predictions are pretty much on track, but there have been some notable exceptions. The first big miss I had was in the matter of Janica Kostelic, whom I predicted to do poorly and probably sustain more injuries. In fact, Kostelic is sitting in second place in the women's overall standings, just 23 points back from the leader, Tanja Poutiainen. She's also managed to get herself points in all four disciplines--she's in the top ten in all four disciplines--and to someone who's skiing like that, 23 points is a gnat's whisker. The most I can say in defense of my prediction is that Kostelic hasn't picked up any wins this year, and has DNF'd in three races…but, obviously, I got this one wrong. I still think she's on short time, though. I also predicted a great season for Maria Reisch, and after a promising start, she turned in a string of mid-teens results before ending her season with an injury. And I seriously overlooked the USA's Lindsey Kildow, who picked up her first World Cup win in the Lake Louise downhill, and whose string of top-ten results have her near the top rankings in both speed disciplines. On the men's side, I thought Daron Rahlves would be higher in points than he is currently, but Daron turned in the Crash of the Year a few weeks ago, and that hasn't helped. He may catch fire at the World Championships, which don't give you any World Cup points but do give you some nice medals. I didn't think Thomas Grandi would be doing as well as he is, I thought that Kjetil Andre Aamodt would be doing a lot better than he is, and I don't understand what's happened to Kalle Palander. The next big ski racing excitement is, of course, the World Championships in Bormio. Next to the Winter Olympics, the Worlds are the biggest whoop-de-doo in ski racing--in fact, this year's Worlds features the courses and slopes that will be used in the Olympics next year. The festivities kick off on Friday, January 28, with the opening ceremony followed by the all-important opening cocktails. I got that right off the official schedule, I swear. In fact, you should check out the schedule for some fun reading and a keen idea of sensible European priorities: Saturday the 29th, men's super G at 11:45, mulled wine at 17:00, medal ceremony at 18:30 (after everybody's gotten plenty of mulled wine)…Sunday the 30th, women's super G at 11:45, mulled wine at 17:00, medal ceremony at 18:30, dance party at 21:30… Is it any wonder that I want to be a ski racing journalist when I grow up? Next on the White Circus: the human drama of athletic competition, raw animal pageantry, and mulled wine of the 2005 Bormio World Championships.

posted by lil_brown_bat to commentary at 10:42 AM - 0 comments

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