Chile, in 2016. Photo courtesy of Bomber Ski
Bode Miller taught us you can catch an edge and still regain composure. He was an athlete who gambled that perseverance and resilience would eventually pay off.
BY DOUG HARE
It’s mid-October and Bode Miller answers the door barefoot, wearing board shorts and a flannel. Inviting us into his Orange County, California, home he takes a moment to prepare for our interview. His wife Morgan is making scrambled eggs. She’s eating for three on this sunny morning with twins due in less than a month, while her youngest son Easton Vaughn Rek is flanking her side in only a diaper.
Miller remerges: “You should wait until after the eggs are cooked to add salt,” he suggests to Morgan. Bode Miller isn’t one to hold back an opinion when he thinks he’s right. And he doesn’t peddle in mediocrity. Never has.
Growing up outside of Easton, New Hampshire, his competitive nature shown through early on, and not just on the slopes of nearby Cannon Mountain. He credits much of his success, as the most decorated American male alpine ski racer of all time, to the lessons he learned growing up in summer camps at the Tamarack Tennis Club, which his grandparents started in 1962.
Various media articles have mentioned Miller’s cross-training in a multitude of sports, but those pursuits were always downplayed, he says.
“Tennis was the primary structured activity,” Miller said from his shaded front porch. “But there was soccer, capture the flag, ping-pong, volleyball, frisbee, football, you name it.” The exposure as a camper with kids from around the world was formative in what you could describe as his cosmopolitan views rooted in the libertarian soil he grew up on, usually barefoot in the woods when he wasn’t on a soccer pitch, tennis court or ski slope. It would be this eclectic, rogue perspective that he would refine during his travels in pursuit of the two overall World Cup titles and six Olympic medals he lays claim to.
While the narrative of Bode Miller as a renegade ski racer, some kind of undisciplined rebel bucking the system at every turn, gained traction and snowballed in media coverage, that depiction was never the most accurate portrayal of his true nature behind the piercing blue eyes and provocative comments. He wasn’t so much obstinate and contrarian as he was uncompromising in the pursuit of his goals, unwilling to conform and unorthodox in his methods to achieve greatness.
“I think I was aware of that at a young age,” said Miller, now 42. “I didn’t want to look back on my career and blame other people for why I wasn’t successful. So at the end of the day I had to look more critically at what people were proposing to me. Unfortunately most of the coaches, no knock against them … they didn’t have the right answers for me.
“When you’re trying to talk about being the best in the world, it’s like anything—art, or music or acting—you can have people that stimulate certain thought processes but … in the end it has to be that individual that does it. You can’t just follow a template and become the best.”
A young Miller discovered that at tennis camp and on the ski hill competing against older, more talented kids. He knew he had to make adjustments and play to his strengths to achieve the level of excellence that would satisfy him. The impressive results of his lengthy ski racing career have been well chronicled and speak for themselves. “I’d put my career, very subjectively, up against anyone in the history of the sport and I think I had a better time doing it than anyone else.”
In order to succeed on the world ski stage, Bode innovated a racing technique that was uniquely matched to his athletic strengths and fearless style. As he tells it, at his prime in his best races he was far from flawless but could correct mistakes and adapt in real time, something that he could only practice going full speed— something that inherently didn’t work out every time, like his last race in 2015 at Beaver Creek, Colorado, when he severed his hamstring with his own ski. He retired from racing in 2017, briefly returning as an NBC commentator during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The six-time Olympian’s name might appear less frequently in the sports news nowadays, but last year the Millers made nationwide news after losing their daughter Emmy in a tragic drowning accident.
Asked about grief, he pauses. “No one’s getting out suffering and pain are all part of it. It doesn’t really discriminate between class or wealth. There’s nothing right about what your natural feelings are after losing a child. You have to be able to get to the point of accepting the new normal.”
“When you’re trying to talk about being the best in the world, it’s like anything—art, or music or acting—in the end it has to be that individual that does it.”
Last Nov. 8, Morgan gave birth to healthy, twin baby boys, delivering them at their SoCal home with the help of her husband and his mother. While their life is a far cry from where Bode Miller grew up, a cabin with no running water or electricity nestled in the woods of the Live-Free-or-Die state, he tries to keep the same ethos under which he was raised.
“Morgan and I try to be pretty hands-off in a lots of ways … you can’t remove obstacles from their path because those are the times they learn most effectively and with the least amount of risk.” Even though his commitment to raising his now five children is his biggest priority in retirement from alpine racing, Miller’s ambitions are these days redirected into the business world.
“At the end of ski racing career, you usually go find a job and get one fast,” Miller said. “There’s usually not a lot of money in your bank account after a ski racing career.”
These days, Miller’s skillset, connections and competitive drive align nicely with what is known as “disruptive entrepreneurship,” a way for small companies to innovate and succeed where larger, more established brands have blind spots or inefficiencies.
In the fall of 2015, Miller became an equity partner and chief innovation officer for Aztech Mountain, a performance ski apparel company based in Aspen, Colorado and New York City. That same year, he announced his partnership with Bomber skis, hoping to offer to the public skis of the caliber he rode on tour. “Luckily, I’m at the point where I can pick and choose who I partner with.”
Miller last summer announced his partnership with Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, two communities that flank Lone Mountain in the burgeoning hamlet of Big Sky, Montana, where he plans to live for most of the winter. No stranger to southwest Montana, Miller visited this region often when his sister attended Montana State University in the late ‘90s, traveling to Yellowstone National Park and skiing Big Sky Resort when he could. For Miller, Big Sky has “that culture—the terrain is gnarly and rugged, the people are hearty and the community is warm and welcoming.”
His plans to help develop the mountain culture, facilities and amenities around his new hometown are in the earliest phases, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility of starting his own ski academy. Then he rattles off five ways that the operations surrounding his new home mountain could improve—already racing in entrepreneurial mode.
Scot Schmidt, godfather of extreme skiing and now ambassador at the Yellowstone Club just outside of Big Sky, admires Miller’s ski career and looks forward to his next chapter. “In that all-or-nothing discipline that Bode was in, he was the real deal; a true hero,” Schmidt said. “I have a lot of respect for somebody who figures out that something isn’t working for him, taking control of the situation … and becoming a champion.”
There are no pre-race inspections in life; no way of knowing what’s around the next corner. If anything, Bode Miller taught us you can catch an edge and still regain composure. Miller was an athlete who gambled that perseverance and resilience would eventually pay off.
“I knew that since I was 11,” he says. “I wasn’t training to develop skiing muscles, I was training to survive the crashes.” Thankfully, sport can teach us lessons that transcend the physical realm, helping us navigate even the most difficult sections of the course.
Doug Hare is a staff writer and the distribution director for Mountain Outlaw magazine.