In Europe, where he is a celebrity, Bode Miller has stood at the top of slalom runs and listened to 50,000 Austrians chanting "Bo-de, Bo-de." They know that his eccentric skiing style butt back, feet forward, hands flying and utter disregard for actually finishing a race, never mind winning it, will often produce compelling sport. In the combined downhill in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Miller was a nanosecond from disaster when he made what might have been the greatest 60 m.p.h. recovery in the history of skiing to claim a silver medal. He either lands on the podium or on his posterior.
He is the world's best ski racer, but whatever the result, he laughs it off and maybe has a beer afterward. Or two. In a world where winners get endorsements and losers work for the ski patrol, Miller actually believes in that old Olympic canard that it's playing the game that counts. "Despite all the pressure and the caliber of accomplishment, I still can honestly say it is not all about winning," he told TIME during pre-Olympic training at Colorado's Copper Mountain. The important thing to him is to try to ski well to improve, to reach his own goals and most important, to have a good time.
Last week it was his mouth that went off course blew out of its bindings after Miller admitted on 60 Minutes to skiing a race hung over. He was "wasted," as he put it, after securing the overall World Cup title the day before. In its promos for the show, CBS said he skied drunk, which Miller denies. But he has never been the least bit shy about his après-ski technique. "There's been times I've been in really tough shape at the top of the course," he told 60 Minutes. The statement was typical of Miller's quirky, uncensored self, but it quickly snowballed into a crisis. With controversies about sexual harassment, citizenship and team selection already dogging Olympic athletes in skeleton and figure skating, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) officials hurried to Miller's next race venue in Wengen, Switzerland, reprimand in hand. In apology, Miller said, "The message that came through is not what I'm about in any way in my sporting career."
Say hello to skiing's wild child, a mountain prodigy who grew up plumbing-free, electricity-free and constraint-free in a house hand-built by his parents in a forest near Franconia, N.H. As a kid, Miller spent as many winter hours skiing at nearby Cannon Mountain as he did in the classroom. In his teens, he was all but dismissed as being uncoachable. But, last year his World Cup triumph was the first by an American in 22 years. His prowess is such that he could win a medal in any of five Alpine skiing events at the Olympic Games in Torino, Italy, which begin Feb. 10. Most racers compete in two, at most.
Miller is also skiing's mad scientist. There couldn't possibly be anyone who has thought more about what it takes to win a ski race. He has contemplated every aspect of the sport, whether it's boot design, the way your nerves should fire during a turn or even how the World Cup tour should operate. "I simply think things through, and I look at problems," he told TIME. "One thing I pride myself on is the ability to connect unconnected thoughts and come up with new, unique thoughts."