On Sunday, American Bode Miller won his first Olympic gold medal — 12 years after his Olympic debut and four years after his washout in Turin. Finally, Miller’s Olympic performance matched his potential. How that happened is a lesson for young people everywhere.
Bode Miller, 32, of Franconia, N.H., is the most accomplished American alpine skier in history. He has 32 World Cup victories, two overall World Cup championships, four World Championship gold medals and one silver, and five Olympic medals. Yet if Americans know Miller at all, it is probably for blowing the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, where he entered as the favorite but left with no medals, only numerous reports of his late-night, alcohol-fueled escapades.
Though not a household name in the rest of the country, he is in New Hampshire. Here, he is known as a free spirit, to put a friendly spin on it. Critics say he’s an immature party boy who never grew up. Miller’s parents are reputed to have been ’60s free spirits themselves. He has a sister named Genesis Wren Bungo Windrushing Turtleheart and a brother named Nathaniel Kinsman Ever Chelone Skan. People who know the family say Miller grew up wandering the woods unsupervised, as his parents didn’t believe in structure or discipline.
That’s surely something of a stretch, as he was taking skiing lessons as a young child, but it is axiomatic around New Hampshire that discipline was not something Bode Miller knew well growing up — or as a young man. Which explains much of Miller’s troubled history.
When he first arrived at the Carrabassett Valley Academy, a ski school in Sugarloaf, Maine, his youth coach predicted Miller would become an Olympic gold medalist. In 1996, at age 19, Miller became a star on the World Cup circuit. But in Salt Lake City in 2002, he came away with only silvers, and in Turin in 2006, he failed to finish three races and didn’t place higher than sixth in those he did finish. The next year he left the U.S. Ski Team and raced as an independent.
Then, last October, calmer and yearning for Olympic gold, he returned to the team. Some who know him say becoming a father made him more responsible. His little girl is two years old this month. Some think he’s just aged and realized that this was his last chance to medal in the Olympic games.
As great as it is, Miller’s career is spotted with disappointments that stemmed not from the quality of his competition but from his own inner conflicts. Whether it was partying, drinking, or an overall lack of focus, Miller lost numerous big races he could have won. The outcome of no athletic event is guaranteed, of course. Miller might never have medaled in Turin even had he been at his best there. The point is, we will never know because all too often Miller didn’t show up to compete.
But in these Olympic games, he has. And the reason seems to be that he has finally gotten his head into the game as well as his body. His former youth coach at Sugarloaf, John Ritzo, told the Boston Globe that Miller finally has grown up. A friend of Miller’s family told the New Hampshire Union Leader that Miller’s mother says her son finally has his head in the right place this year. His teammates have described him as “hungry” and “motivated” this time.
All of this means, simply, that hard work and discipline matter, even in the world of athletics, where raw physical ability would seem to be paramount. Miller worked hard to become the world champion skier he has been for years. But at times, when he lost focus, he failed. He finally won Olympic gold this year, and thus lived up to his tremendous potential, by clearing his head of distractions and working hard on achieving his goal.
In other words, he decided he wanted to win. That’s the theme of a lot of sports movies, of course. But it’s a cliché because it’s true. And what’s kind of exciting about Miller’s focus this year is that if Bode Miller, described by other skiers as “crazy,” can concentrate his mind enough to turn the debacle of Turin into the glory of Vancouver, then there is hope for just about everyone, whatever their endeavors.
In an interview after his gold medal win on Sunday, Miller said that before the race he had one leg injured and the other leg already in his boat. Quintessential Bode Miller. But he said he cleared his head, focused on the race, and made a great run. Coaches might do well to show that interview to their kids at the start of the season — right after they show interviews with Miller from, and clips of his races in, Turin.
The contrast will prove a point every kid, athlete or not, needs to learn: You might be the fastest, the strongest, the smartest, or the most eloquent kid around. But that doesn’t mean anything if you goof off while your competition works harder.