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BIG SKY, Mont. — Striding up the final steps to the sumptuously constructed Spanish Peaks Mountain Club at Big Sky Resort, I was suddenly confronted with the same realization that had befallen so many ski racers of the last quarter-century: I had been beaten by Bode Miller.
There, amid a picturesque Montana backdrop, stood the 6-foot-2-inch frame of the most successful male American ski racer. Wearing a light blue jacket, tinted goggles for the sunny day, and a pair of Peak Skis (partly of his own design), he was waiting for me.
Miller, 45, had agreed to meet to take a couple ski runs — and, I hoped, answer a few questions — ahead of his formal induction into the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in late March. Our meeting time was 9:30 a.m. Propelled by what he would tell me was a commitment to “generally maximum effort,” Miller was early. And I, being merely on time, scrambled to put on my rental boots and catch up.
He patiently waited, and we departed the lodge and headed toward the chairlift under beaming sunshine. Miller, now a periodic ambassador for Spanish Peaks and the Lone Mountain Land Company, took the lead.
Cruising over Big Sky’s rolling terrain, we speedily descended toward the four-person lift, carving long, arcing turns reminiscent of giant slalom. Though Miller was clearly skiing within himself — which I appreciated — the technique of the man who won 33 World Cup races and six Olympic medals was impossible to miss.
To say that he doesn’t turn like a normal skier is a laughable understatement. Miller, a co-founder of Montana-based Peak Skis, famously tells customers, “If you have to turn, may as well make the best of it.”
As I tried in vain to follow his tracks, it quickly became clear that his turns — which he learned as a youth in Franconia, N.H., on the slopes of Cannon Mountain — were among the best being made on the mountain.
He leans so far over on each turn that his body comes within a few millimeters of scraping the snow. I watch with awe as he shoots over a rolling jump despite being in mid-turn. For a normal skier, this would’ve meant a fall. For Miller, who seemed less susceptible to the basic laws of physics, it was simply an excuse to accelerate (which he did).
Maybe the most impressive part was how casual he made it all look.
Regrouping on the chairlift, I asked him about something that is a universal challenge for athletes: How do you replace the adrenaline rush now that you’re retired?
“I don’t miss racing at all,” said Miller, who retired in 2017. “I don’t miss the rush at all either. I mean, I hit a big cliff earlier this year and I regretted it before I even did it.
“It was fine. I mean, I made it work, nothing blew up and my boots held together. But I don’t miss racing.”
Seeming to detect my skepticism, Miller elaborated.
“There are just so many other variables that come into play with skiing, and the biggest one is the desire and willingness to take risks and lay your body out there,” he explained. “That definitely goes away more as you get older. I didn’t really do it for any of that.”
On his own from an early age
He still loves skiing, telling me that he’s on the mountain “one hundred-plus days a year.” But the more he described racing, the clearer picture I got of his solitary and introspective portrait of the sport.
“There’s so much pressure in skiing because it’s a solo sport,” he said. “You’re not even competing against another athlete. Your competitive nature in skiing can be satiated by just being out here, because it’s the same thing.
“All you’re doing is trying to push yourself. It’s a time trial. I mean, nobody affects you. You don’t affect them. You just go and see who’s fastest. It’s like you against the mountain, or like against yourself and the mountain.”
“It was a great sport for me. I loved a lot of different sports, but it was clear to me very early that this was the one that made the most sense with my personality and what I like to do. It fit exactly who I was, which was nice. I didn’t have to become somebody else to do it.”
The relationship Miller has with skiing began so early that he can’t specifically recall where it started.
“I don’t honestly remember the first time I skied because I think I was 2,” he said. “I just had Sorel boots on and those skis that you could kind of just wrap a little thing around your foot to buckle yourself in. I just slid around in our yard and messed around.”
It was part of an upbringing that was spent mostly outdoors, growing up in a New Hampshire cabin that did not have electricity or running water until he was around the age of 7.
By that time, he was already accustomed to skiing on his own.
“I was home-schooled, so I had just tons of volume,” Miller recalled. “I could just get a ride up there, and at that time the mountain culture was very trusting. So nobody skied with me after I was probably 5.
“I was just on my own. They dropped me off and would pick me up at 4:30. It was like, ‘Take care of yourself.’ ”
As we continued skiing in between chairlift conversations, Miller’s solitary instincts became more noticeable. Though friendly and considerate, he also seemed uninterested in waiting for any period of time, jumping straight into runs as if to test my ability.
Miler’s commitment to independence — what he refers to as his “authenticity” — was a defining trait, for better or worse, during his two-decade career.
“The one thing that I think I am truly sort of proud of is that I was authentic really throughout my whole career,” he said. “I think it resonated with people. They could see that I was very much my own person. I wasn’t an automaton the way some of the Europeans can appear at times.”
He is aware that that “authenticity” had occasional side effects, later referencing the “mistakes and the missed opportunities and all that.”
“I suffered with people and I put myself in situations where I and everybody else had to ride on that train, willingly or not,” he acknowledged.
Olympic ups and downs
Probably his most controversial moment came in 2006 at the Torino Olympics. Miller entered the Games as one of the poster athletes for Team USA. It was a spotlight he didn’t initially enjoy.
“They tell a story, and it’s out there to hundreds of millions of people, and the story is never the person,” he said. “No matter how good you try to do it, it doesn’t encapsulate the person.”
Despite being a prerace favorite in multiple events, Miller finished without a medal, and he was maligned for appearing to not care about the results. Looking back, he acknowledged that the grind of competing in so many events while being at the forefront of an entire nation’s hopes led to some of his issues.
“Keep in mind, from 2001 I was one of the [US team] guys and I shouldered the brunt of everything on the World Cup for 10-15 years,” he said. “I raced four events, so there was no downtime. Other guys were leaving, going home. It was that repetition that just wore on me and brought out the worst parts of my personality at times.”
Four years later, Miller earned redemption. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, he won a bronze medal in the downhill, a silver in the super-G, and a gold in the combined. By then, he said, he had learned how to better process the mantle of expectation.
“It never went away,” he said of the pressure. “I just became very comfortable being myself. And there’s a whole bunch of other things that came along with some of the expectations that were actually really positive.
“People want the Olympic experience. They want something that shocks them and is inspirational. They want ‘Rocky.’ They want coming from behind. They want the ‘Miracle on Ice.’ ”
In 2010, Miller tried to embrace that.
“When you surrender to that, it elevates you,” he said.
He pointed to the slalom portion of the combined, an event in which he was not favored to do well. In the end, a dazzling run proved to be the difference in his gold-medal performance.
“I had no business skiing that kind of run that year,” he said. “My equipment was horrible. I hadn’t finished a slalom with any speed in years. I went and put down an absolutely solid run.
“That was rewarding to me, but also I think it was rewarding to everybody else because it took a miracle to do that. I probably wasn’t capable of doing it on my own. I mean, out of 50 runs, maybe I do it once.
“But to do it the one time you have the chance with all that riding on it and come out with the gold, it was a collaborative effort between me and hundreds of millions of people that I had to enter into voluntarily and have that trust.”
Far from finished
The night before we spoke, the current poster athlete of US skiing, Mikaela Shiffrin, had mentioned Miller during an appearance on “The Tonight Show.” Shiffrin, who this year became the winningest World Cup ski racer (man or woman) in history, said she wanted to “be like Bode” when she was growing up.
“It’s been cool to watch, and it’s awesome because that record really will be very difficult for somebody to beat,” Miller said of Shiffrin’s record 88 World Cup victories. “To have that record have American ownership is pretty legendary.”
Miller said the two are friends and talk “quite a bit.” He said he’s thought of Shiffrin as the best of all time for the last five years.
“I have my own sort of place in history, and it’s cool to see somebody who is truly, in my opinion, the top of the top,” he said. “I mean, I have all kinds of records about crashing and a few others, but she has the real ones, which is great.”
He spoke sparingly of his Hall of Fame induction. Asked if he thought of it as a crowning moment, he had a characteristically blunt reply.
“Not really,” he said.
When it comes to his legacy, he said that — like a skier — he is focused on what’s in front of him rather than what’s behind.
“Our priority right now is our kids,” said Miller, referencing his wife, Morgan. “Everything’s totally centered around that.”
Speaking at the induction ceremony the following night, he offered shorter remarks than most — Morgan told me beforehand that he hadn’t written a speech — but there was a central theme. He thinks he is far from finished making an impact in skiing.
“I hope that a lot of my best influence on the sport, on my kids, and for you guys is still to come,” he told the crowd.
As our time skiing together finished, I was reminded of something I’d asked him about earlier on the chairlift, recalling a memorable incident during a 2005 downhill in Bormio, Italy. Miller started that race at typically high speed, but he stepped out of a ski near the top. Most skiers would’ve come to a halt and side-slipped their way off the course. Miller opted to go on, navigating the harrowing course on a single ski until he finally fell near the bottom.
It was an effort that earned him no World Cup points, but the YouTube clip of it has garnered several million views and become more popular than the video of the actual winning run in the race. It was a moment that summarized Miller’s unique appeal as well as his personal philosophy.
Why did he keep skiing?
“It was just, ‘I wonder if I can do it,’ ” he replied. “And ultimately I couldn’t. But I got close.”
Watching as Miller skied off into the distance — pushing himself on every turn as if it were the Olympics — it was clear his “authentic” mentality remains alive and well. He still skis with that same sense of wonder. With one final glance over his shoulder, he waved, accelerated, and was out of sight.
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