Downhill, The Mr Bode Miller Way
The US’s most successful and storied skier takes his Aztech Mountain brand to the Andes for a test run.
Welcome to Portillo, a stunning ski resort in Chile, which sits 3,000m above sea level. “It’s unbelievable here,” says Mr Bode Miller, the US’s most successful skier. “These are the Andes, the most impressive, intimidating mountains in the world.”
It was while doing another photoshoot on these very same slopes a year ago that Mr Miller, a two-time overall World Cup champion and recipient of six Winter Olympics medals, first discovered a skiwear brand called Aztech Mountain. “We were shooting for five hours in the middle of this gnarly snowstorm,” recalls Mr Miller, who, at 39, is still one of the world’s fastest downhill skiers. “It was freezing. I’d worn four different outfits. But I kept going back to this jacket from a brand I’d never heard of before. There was no question it was the best. It was warm, but breathable. It had stretch and ventilation in all the right places. It didn’t ride up, the cut was great, and I loved the design. It was the complete package: fashion meets function meets innovation.”
So impressed was Mr Miller that he sought out Aztech Mountain’s owners to tell them how much he loved it. A mutual love-in ensued, and he ended up investing in the company and joining the team as its chief innovation officer. This isn’t your usual run-of-the-mill athlete endorsement, and make no mistake, Mr Miller has comfortably made millions from those. Nor is that grand-sounding job title a nebulous, honourary one. As well as being the face of the brand, Mr Miller is intent on putting the tech into Aztech. With a life-long interest in sports science, Mr Miller has helped pioneer new technologies such as the revolutionary parabolic hour-glass-shaped skis that make turning at speed easier. He analyses everything that could give him a competitive edge, from the physical equipment to the physiological and psychological because, in the aggregation of marginal gains, the “one per centers” all add up.
The 6ft 2in veteran is approaching the end of his remarkable run as a professional racer, but he has been customising his kit since he was a reckless, fearless kid, making do with hand-me-down equipment. “I would figure out little tricks to ski better,” he says. He managed to jam the bindings on his skis so they wouldn’t come off, for example. “No ski-shop guy would do it for me. Was it safe? Probably not, but they stayed on my feet when I crashed.”
Mr Miller was born to ski wild. At the age of 13, while hurtling down a ravine on Mount Washington, he set off an avalanche and only just made it out alive. That’s an apt metaphor for how he’s lived his life. His backstory is a remarkable one. He and his three siblings were raised “off the grid” in the White Mountains of New Hampshire by well-read hippy parents. They lived a semi-survivalist, bohemian life in a ramshackle cabin built by his father. No phone, no electricity, no indoor plumbing. “I was super-independent,” says Mr Miller. “My family gave me a lot of freedom.”
Until the age of 10, Mr Miller was home-schooled, or “no-schooled”, until his eye-catching talent on skis was spotted and he was given a scholarship to Carrabasset Valley Academy in Maine, the feeder programme for the US ski team. At CVA, his untaught technique was so raw and ragged, and he was so belligerently resistant to coaching, that he was largely ignored as a lost cause.
Throughout his life, he has stubbornly – many would say arrogantly – refused to follow in the tracks of those who went before. He is a maverick who lives by his own rules, ruffles feathers with his unorthodox methods, challenges authority to the point of confrontation, and yet somehow gets results, much to the consternation of his detractors and the delight of his fans.
Mr Miller has never exactly been a team player. He has always followed his own regime, which has, at times, included tightrope walking. He would openly defy protocol during the ski season by staying in his motorhome rather than in hotels with the rest of the squad. From 2007 to 2009, he broke away from the US ski team and formed his own – Team USA – of which he was the only member. He’s never been shy about speaking his mind, often going off-piste with what he says. “They want you to say what you are supposed to say, not what you think,” he says, “they” being a catch-all for anyone in authority. “I think that is tough. It’s particularly tough for me.”
In his personal life, there have been plenty of twists and turns. Mr Miller has struggled to shake off his reputation as a party boy after once admitting to skiing when “wasted”. Though happily settled now, his personal life has at times been complicated, including a bitter custody battle for his three-year-old son, Nate, whom he named after his late brother, a pro snowboarder who died of a seizure aged 29. Mr Miller has three children with three different women and a fourth due in November with his professional beach volleyball player and model wife, Ms Morgan Beck Miller, who’s 10 years younger than him and an inch taller. “You see, I am always way past my comfort zone in terms of what I am doing,” laughs Mr Miller. “That goes for everything. I mean, four kids! Are you kidding?”
Mr Miller is all or nothing, often the former, with the titles and medals and prize money to show for it, but frequently the latter, wiping out spectacularly in a cartoon cloud of snow, skis and poles. He has crashed or been disqualified more times than any World Cup champion in history, a third of his races have ended with a DNF (did not finish) next to his name. Big wins, big crashes, big controversies.
He explains his high-stakes strategy. “Am I good enough to win?” he says. “No, probably not. So what do I have to do to win? I have to try to do something that is beyond what I am capable of. If I did what I was capable of, I would have gotten 15th place every time. But, instead, I tried to win the race, even though I didn’t have the skill set or the ability, and that caused nasty crashes.”
Compared with formally trained skiers in what is often a snobbily elitist sport, he knows he doesn’t have textbook form, but then Mr Miller also doesn’t believe in textbooks. The people he admires most are those who are “tapping into something that is way beyond a textbook, who are learning it themselves”. He cites the free-thinking mathematician and fellow autodidact Mr Srinivasa Ramanujan as an inspiration. “This Indian guy, out of nowhere, in the middle of India, basically self-taught to be one of the greatest minds in mathematics.” The parallels are obvious.
Mr Miller is philosophical as he reflects on the track he has taken. He likens the tough times he has had in life to the wipeouts on the snow. “Most of the mistakes I made caused me to adapt and change and move forward,” he says. “Character is primarily defined by the struggle and then reinforced by the success.”