Watching the Winter games in Vancouver has me thinking about that cowboy Bode Miller, America’s best and most versatile skier ever, and what his riotous style says about play and competition at the highest levels.
Miller has chalked up an unmatched list of victories in each of the different alpine events— 32 World Cup trophies at latest count and bronze, silver, and gold medals at this winter Olympics. His record is especially remarkable because the skills that slalom requires (technique) and the demands of Super-G (speed) are so very different. Yet Miller has all the while insisted that winning isn’t his “goal,” not precisely, not per se. “I didn’t love racing to beat other guys,” he said. He is after something else. That something else has earned him praise for his independence and inspiration when he wins and blame for his cussedness and self-indulgence when he loses.
Now just for the record, no one skis like Miller. He surely has a nose for the “fall line,” the shortest, steepest, fastest streak between gates. The arms flailing, the backward lean that courts disaster, often bellowing in full voice, a style the press often calls reckless. And, built more like a linebacker than a downhill racer, he has proved that he is unafraid of 60-mile-an-hour crashes onto rock-hard slopes. (Once when he lost a ski, he playfully finished the race on one foot and caught the devil from his coaches.)
Raised in rough country New Hampshire, homeschooled in a household without electricity or indoor plumbing, he’s at home in the woods alone with his rambling, original thoughts. But when it comes to the national media, he is careless with his image. After an unfortunate showing at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, where he was odds-on favorite to medal in five events but instead racked up several DNF (did not finish) notations and one DQ for missing a gate, he fended off disappointed reporters by saying that, even though he came up without a medal, at least he had partied like an Olympian. Most already regarded him as diffident and bratty, but with this comeback he managed to make expectant fans think that he was a bad example, too. Poor Bode, he had a problem.
But, to hear the skier’s side of the story, his thinking was entirely consistent. It was press, public, and sponsors who didn’t get it. Miller’s goal, the personal objective that superseded all others, was to pursue speed and fun. Let the medals fall where they may; winning or losing were merely by-products of this unruly pursuit. Usually the strategy worked for him, but wipeouts, too, are quite beside the point for Miller. (“I was having the greatest time making mistakes, crashing,” he once said.) He has instead set out to explore human capability, gravity, and his equipment’s tolerances at the limits of performance—“to ski as fast as the natural universe will allow.” Skiing on the brink this way, trading control for fun, he plunges downhill “right on the edge of what my skis and the snow will hold up to.” A brilliant French thinker, the play-theorist Roger Caillois, once looked for a name for this special joy, the dizzying pleasure of swings and roller-coasters and stunt-flying and steeplechase and skiing. “Vertigo” came close. But in the end he borrowed a Greek word that fit better: ilinx, “the whirlpool.”
Most serious-minded alpine competitors avoid dizzying pleasure, especially when they’re heading downhill at 90 miles per hour. In fact, the demands of Olympic level downhill competition (the precision technique it ordinarily requires, the tough training, the studied authority of coaches, the team protocol, the high expectations of sponsors, the certainty of injury, the intrusions of the press, the hope of nations riding on a single ski run) all stack up against wildness. Ilinx, the scholar reasonably declared, is “incompatible” with the organized codified competition; this is a “forbidden relationship.” The competitor must behave. Commentators are already framing Bode’s triumphs as redemption. He got another shot; he has redeemed himself by winning. But they miss the point. Here instead is the point: with an inspired approach that bucks the odds and conventional wisdom, Bode Miller has managed to excel while at play in the whirlpool.