At five minutes past nine last Thursday morning a helicopter
lifted U.S. skier Bode Miller into a cloudless blue sky above the
idyllic Swiss mountain village of Wengen. Twelve minutes later
Miller was dropped off at the top of a slalom training course on
an icy slope in Adelboden, 2 1/2 hours from Wengen by train or
car. Miller skied six brisk runs while the helicopter, which had
been rented by his ski sponsor, Rossignol, waited. Just after 11
a.m. he was whisked back across the craggy peaks of the Jungfrau
Alps to Wengen and left at the top of the venerable Lauberhorn
downhill course, where he changed skis and ripped through a
training run for the next day's race. It's safe to say that if
you're commuting to work by helicopter on somebody else's dime,
life is good.
Miller's life is better than most, and it's improving at a
blurring pace. Just over a year ago he was a stubborn New
Hampshireman who had speed and potential but often crashed. Last
winter he began staying upright, and he won four races on the
World Cup circuit and two silver medals (the U.S.'s only Alpine
medals, in giant slalom and combined) at the Salt Lake City
Olympics. Last spring he signed a contract to use Rossignol skis,
which, with incentives and endorsements, could earn him a base of
$1 million over the next two years, according to ski industry
Now Miller, 25, is having the season of his life, shocking the
ski world by raising the level of his downhill skiing to nearly
match his brilliant slalom and giant slalom work, and making
himself a threat not only to claim this year's World Cup overall
points title, but also to become just the fifth skier in history
to win World Cup races in all five disciplines (slalom, giant
slalom, downhill, Super G and combined).
"I am amazed by what he has done," says 1972 Olympic downhill
champion Bernhard Russi of Switzerland, who designs downhill
courses and follows the World Cup closely. "I can see him getting
stronger every time he races downhill. If he keeps on skiing the
way he is right now, soon there will be nobody who can beat him
in anything. He has more potential than any skier to become
It has been a swift and dizzying climb, yet Miller isn't slowing.
Before this winter he was sensational in the slalom events but
mediocre in the more harrowing speed disciplines of downhill and
Super G. Now he has moved into the top 10 among the world's speed
skiers. Last weekend in Wengen, he took second place in a
combined downhill-slalom (using Friday's downhill and Sunday's
slalom) and moved past Austria's Stephan Eberharter into the
World Cup overall lead. No American has won the World Cup overall
title since Phil Mahre did so from 1981 to '83. "I expect him to
be competitive with me for the rest of the year," says
Eberharter, who is regarded as the best ski racer in the world
(even with Hermann Maier's return last week). "He's young. He's
good. He takes big risks."
And among American racers, he is not alone. One year after Miller
saved the U.S. ski team from an Olympic shutout, one of his
teammates, speed specialist Daron Rahlves, has won a World Cup
downhill and reached the medal podium on three other occasions.
Another teammate, Erik Schlopy--one of the best technical skiers
in the world before he was waylaid by mononucleosis in 2002--has
twice finished in the top five in World Cup races. It turns out
that Miller has coattails.
"We have a guy on our team who's [going around] in a
helicopter--that's approaching the aura of a Tomba," says
Schlopy, alluding to three-time Olympic champion Alberto Tomba of
Italy. "It rubs off on the team. It's pride, and maybe even a mix
of pride and envy, but it rubs off in a good way."
Rahlves, the 2001 Super G world champion, whose turf is most
threatened by Miller's expansion, says, "I want to ski faster, he
wants to ski faster. We can feed off each other. I still like to
think I'm the fastest guy on this team in downhill, and I'm going
to try as hard as I can to prove that."
Miller is the only U.S. Alpine skier who left Salt Lake City with
buzz. He took time off in the spring to vacation in Hawaii and to
win the Superstars competition in Jamaica before turning to his
future. First order of business was a new ski contract. Not only
was his two-year deal with Fischer in its final year, but Miller
felt the company owed him $91,000 in incentives for second-place
finishes in last year's combined Olympic and Wengen competitions.
He has since filed suit against Fischer in New Hampshire Superior
Court. "I'm sure they're hurting for money; everybody in the
business is," Miller says of Fischer. "But when you sign a
contract, you pay." (Fischer executives declined to comment.)
Fischer did try to keep Miller by offering a two-year contract at
$350,000 per year, plus incentives, according to David Auer,
president of Fischer U.S. But Rossignol offered Miller a two-year
deal at nearly $1 million, with significant incentives, including
mid-five figures for winning a World Cup race and substantially
more for winning the overall title. "We lost Bode over money,"
says Auer. "He cashed in on his Olympic success."
Miller says it was much more than that. "Fischer built the skis I
wanted," he says, "but I need to be with a company that's also
capable of doing it on its own. Rossignol has top-notch research
and development. It has the ability to be the Number 1 ski
company in the world, and that's perfect, because my goal is to
be the best in the world in five events."
In pursuit of that goal, Miller spent his summer in much the same
way he always has: teaching for two months at his family's tennis
camp in Franconia, N.H., and running intervals on quiet country
roads while pushing a heavy tennis-court roller. He continued to
live in the rustic home he bought from his grandmother two years
ago. (MTV's Cribs called, but Miller was busy. "I would have
loved to show them my cabin," he says.) When he joined the U.S.
ski team for summer training, he worked exclusively on slalom and
At the first downhill of the season, on Nov. 30 at Lake Louise,
Alberta, Canada, Miller trained once on his new skis and finished
seventh. His best previous finish in a World Cup downhill had
been 32nd. Miller was eighth in the downhill at Beaver Creek,
Colo.; fifth on a tough course in Bormio, Italy; and, last week,
sixth on the 2.7-mile, thigh-burning Lauberhorn in Wengen. "He's
surprised all of us," says Schlopy. "Didn't work at downhill all
summer, shows up and looks like a downhiller."
While others seek deep explanations, Miller is typically terse.
"It's the skis--I haven't changed anything else," he says. "I'm
more balanced and more relaxed in speed events, but the skis have
a lot to do with that. I'm not struggling to control them."
Of course, it's not only the skis. "Bode has always been a great
natural skier," says Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt, one of the
four skiers to have won World Cup races in all five disciplines.
"In the speed events he just needed experience and better skis.
Now he's got both."
Miller switches skis constantly, from tiny 155-centimeter slalom
skis to 217-centimeter downhill boards. And though he has
improved dramatically in the downhill, he had only one second
place and three did-not-finishes in World Cup slaloms at week's
end. He had fared somewhat better in the giant slalom, winning
two while failing to finish in two others. Last Saturday he
trained slalom on the morning of the second Wengen downhill.
"It's what I have to do if I want to win in five events," says
His success in the speed disciplines will continue to push
Rahlves to new heights too. Rahlves--ninth in the overall
standings at week's end--won a downhill in December on the gnarly
Bormio course and finished second to Eberharter last Friday in
Wengen, on a course that plunged endlessly from the rocky face of
the Eiger across barren ice flats and into a forest of
evergreens. "I'm skiing better than I have in my life," Rahlves
said afterward, near the finish line. "Better than 2001."
Then he was whisked away to a press conference. In a chopper.
COLOR PHOTO: ALESSANDRO TROVATI/AP [T of C] POWDER BUFF Daron Rahlves of the U.S. aims to move up from third in the World Cup downhill standings (page 72).
COLOR PHOTO: ALESSANDRO TROVATI/AP CASHING IN Miller got a big raise by signing with Rossignol.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AGENCE ZOOM/GETTY IMAGES MILLER'S TIME? Thanks in part, he says, to new skis, Bode has five top 10 downhill finishes, including a seventh at Lake Louise.
COLOR PHOTO: CARLO FERRARO/AFP IN THE HUNT After a disappointing Olympics, Rahlves is back in fine form, sitting third in downhill and ninth overall.
"If Bode keeps on, THERE WILL BE NOBODY WHO CAN BEAT HIM," says
Russi. "He has the potential to become totally dominant."