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Crashing the Party

Features
posted: 08/25/2003

Huddled in the start house of the st. moritz men's downhill on Piz Nair peak, waiting out a weather delay with the wind blowing ice pellets hard enough to sandpaper exposed skin, anyone-even the European gods of ski racing-might find it difficult to relax. And indeed, the Ìbermenschen of the mighty Austrian ski team, Stephan Eberharter and Hermann Maier, appear to be freezing, not chilling out. The tight-lipped Eberharter barks an order, and the technician squatting at his feet tries to swab away the ice crystals that keep reforming on the racer's Atomics. Maier grows frustrated at the clumsy way his coach is applying tape to his brutal blade of a face and snatches the spool out of his hand. "Ach," he snarls, disgusted, and in a flurry of tearing and pasting, soon has his cheeks mummified against the cold.

As walkie-talkies crackle in a dozen different languages and jittery racers close their eyes to visualize the contours of the course, Bode Miller sprawls nonchalantly on a snowbank, paging through a copy of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. With a worse-for-the-wear wool cap pulled down to his eyes, Miller brushes away the snow collecting on the battered paperback like he's a paragraph away from a nice nap.

Standing beside an inflatable purple cow advertising Swiss chocolate, Miller's teammate Daron Rahlves seems equally at ease. Tormenting his coaches, he jokes about going for air rather than speed on his next run. "Off that last drop," he laughs, " I bet I could huck 200 feet, easy."

Judging by appearances, you might think this is yet another team of spoiled Americans who can't deliver. But for the first time in recent memory, the U.S. men are tearing up the World Cup circuit. Led by laid-back Miller from northern New Hampshire and amped-up Rahlves out of northern California, the upstart Yanks are crashing a party that, for decades, has been dominated by Europeans. And here at the 2003 World Championships at St. Moritz, Switzerland, a citadel of old-school European alpine culture, it's obvious how entertaining it can be to find yourself on top of the world.

Throughout the winter-long world cup grind, many of the American racers have had brilliant moments. But it's Miller and Rahlves who have consistently been pushing the team toward one of the greatest seasons in American skiing history. Rahlves, 30, with his blond mane of surfer-boy hair and tendency to break bones jumping souped-up dirt bikes and snowmobiles, used to be better known for his spectacular stunts and crashes than for his results on the racecourse. At Kitzbühel, Austria, last year, Rahlves hit a fence in the Hahnenkamm and lost both skis. After clicking back in, he tried to wow the fans with a wild 280-foot air but crashed into the finish instead.

This year, Rahlves says he decided to throttle back enough to cross the finish line consistently. The results have been remarkable. Rahlves won the tough, technical downhill at Bormio, Italy, and took second at Wengen, Switzerland. Then, two weeks before coming to St. Moritz, he reached the pinnacle of his ski career so far: He won the Hahnenkamm, downhill racing's most storied championship, becoming the first American in 44 years to beat the Austrians on their own turf. "Eberharter was the last racer on the course," Rahlves says. "And he was leading by two one-hundredths at the last split. At the finish, I couldn't watch, I just looked at the snow. Then I heard 40,000 Austrians go completely quiet, and I knew I was champion." A year earlier, after Rahlves beat him in the downhill at St. Anton, Maier boasted at the press conference, "If the course was 20 seconds longer I would have won."

"But it wasn't," Eberharter said, cutting his teammate off, demonstrating his grudging respect for Rahlves, "and you didn't." With his Hahnenkamm win, Rahlves cemented his reputation.

Afterward, Rahlves was carried rock-star style on the shoulders of his coaches and teammates through the fan-packed streets of Kitzbühel.hen, in a tradition nearly as rich as the race itself, he stayed up all night bartending at the Londoner Pub, pouring almost as much vodka and Red Bull into himself as he served to his adoring fans. It was there at Kitzbühel that Rahlves had an epiphany. "Skiing balls-out on a downhill course is fun," he says."But winning is even more fun. I had a taste of the success Bode's been having, and I decided I wanted way more of that." For years, soft-spoken 25-year-old Bode Miller was considered a freak of nature, able to excel at any sport he chose, from soccer to tennis to skiing-but not necessarily focused enough to live up to his potential. Then his two Olympic medals in Salt Lake City vaulted him to ski stardom, especially in Europe. Growing up off the grid with hippie parents in a backwoods cabin without running water or electricity, Miller was born far from the mainstream, and he still pitches the tent of his personality in the boonies. "Bode's different," a coach or a teammate will tell you-and then describe his unflappability before big races or the line he found on a course four inches from a fence that no other racer even considered.

In the first World Champion-ship race this week, the super G, Miller found a fast enough line to tie Maier for the silver medal. But they were both edged out by Eberharter. At the award ceremony in the center of St. Moritz, after the Austrian national anthem had played and the U.S. flag had been raised into second position above the podium, the new U.S. men's speed coach John "Johno" McBride pointed to the Austrian flag rippling in the breeze above. "I want to see the Stars and Stripes up there," he said.

"You will," Miller said. "I promise."

After the storm cancels training, the boys assemble for a buffet dinner back at their fussily formal hotel in downtown St. Moritz. Miller shuffles into the dining room wearing sweatpants and outsized slippers shaped like tiger paws. "I wear my ski boots three and a half sizes too small, and I've already got three blue toenails," he explains. "People see me coming in these and usually manage not to step on my feet." As two dozen coaches, athletes, and technicians gather for dinner, Rahlves arrives in shorts and a hoody that reads monster in gothic letters. Two tuxedoed Swiss waiters, standing sourly at either end of the buffet, shoot him the evil eye. "This is so disgusting," he says, jabbing at a chop of steamy mystery meat with his fork. "I bet the Austrians bribed the chef."

For years, the Austrians have been the New York Yankees of ski racing, the team with the money, the mystique, and the unbeatable string of superstars. But now the Americans smell blood. Credit the new coaching staff, which arranged for the U.S. racers to train with the Austrians in the off-season. "I wanted our guys to spend time with them, to see they're mortal," says Jesse Hunt, director of alpine ski racing. "Our athletes realized what quality was and that if they work hard, they could be just as good."

To pull off the revolution-the overthrow of Europe's top skiing talent-the Americans have to believe in themselves. "We definitely do," Rahlves says. "It used to be you'd look at the Austrians and they'd have so many guys who could rip, it was kind of humbling. But now we're becoming that way. On any day, Bode or me or the rest of the guys feel like we can beat anyone."

Stoking the revolution-ary fire is McBride, 38, who was promoted to head speed coach this year at the athletes' request. Wearing a wool watch cap adorned with a grinning devil that he found in a gas-station bathroom and sporting a Fu Manchu mustache, McBride stands out among the European coaches in their pastel parkas.

"Why are we winning now?" he muses. "Our team chemistry is great. When you start having results, it snowballs and we all pick each other up. Sometimes the sun has to shine on the dog's ass." To inspire his team, McBride presents animal talismans to the racers each week, based on their performance. This week, Rahlves got a broad-shouldered bull and Miller received a long-legged stallion.

"Daron's a bull-he's got the biggest sack on the tour," McBride says. "The gnarlier, the steeper the course is, the better. He can be the best downhiller out there, but sometimes he tries too hard to crush the mountain. St. Moritz is a technical course with a lot of gliding. There are some mountains you can't crush. We have to work on that."

Then there's Miller, the distractable thoroughbred. "He's so talented, I think he gets bored by the business of ski racing," McBride says. "Not the two minutes running gates-he loves that. But everything else, he looks at the course for seven minutes and is, like, 'Yeah, whatever, see you at the race.' But if he dedicates himself, Bode has a shot at being the best all-around racer in the world."

Scratch his placid surface and you find that world domination is clearly something Miller wants. Once pigeonholed as a slalom specialist, he has been working on adding speed to his arsenal. Having Rahlves to measure himself against has helped. "D is such a monster in the speed events," Miller says. "I just try to keep up when we train. This season, if you look at my splits, I've been as fast as him. But I'm still making too many mistakes. If I can just ski clean, I know I'll be able to compete with D or Stephan Eberharter or anyone."

The day of the combined race in st. moritz, 20,000 fans brave the blowing snow and fill the vast horseshoe-shaped amphitheater erected around the finish line. The bright red fighter jets of the Swiss Air Force tear out of the cloud cover overhead, shaking the packed stands before slicing into the whiteout that blankets the starthouse on Piz Nair peak. In the athlete's lounge, Miller helps Rahlves fasten his spine protector, and the U.S. Teamers zip up their blue speed suits. Standing in a loose, confident pack, the Americans seem to both irritate and fascinate the other racers, like a clique of popular jocks in a high school cafeteria.

"Aaaa-wooooh!" McBride wolf-howls into the radio. "You boys ready?" Answering howls crackle across the U.S. Team radios. "Okay," McBride says. "Visibility at the top sucks, but we're sticking with our plan. Go all out. You'll have to fight for it at the top, but you can still smoke it."

Most of the Americans have decided to run only the first leg (the downhill), skipping the two slalom runs, to get extra training on the speed course for later in the week. Miller will do both, and he's a favorite to take it all, along with Austrian Benjamin Raich and Norwegians Lasse Kjus and Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who edged Miller for gold at the Salt Lake Olympics.

A fanfare blasted on 20 alpine horns announces the beginning of the race, and the crowd roars. Rahlves cranks hard on the upper course but loses time when he powers wide on a final turn. The U.S. racers radio back from the bottom, advising each other about choppy snow on the first few turns and the strong wind. When it's Miller's turn, he hurls himself down the 45-degree Free Fall-the steepest start in World Cup downhill history-accelerating to 70 miles an hour in seven seconds and fighting to see through the heavy fog. Clipping a gate, his goggles are knocked askew, and he battles his way down the rest of the course cleanly-despite snow stuck inside his lenses. Crossing the finish, Miller looks up at the leader board, expecting to see his name near the top. Instead, he finds himself in 17th place, almost three seconds behind Kjus, the leader.

Everyone knows Miller is capable of eating up the slalom, but three seconds seems insurmountable. "After that first run, I was kind of crushed," he admits later, "But I knew the combined is a long day and anything can happen." What happens next surprises even the supremely confident Miller. On his first slalom run, he slashes and jerks wildly through the course, and when the times are totted up, he's skied a second and a hn their performance. This week, Rahlves got a broad-shouldered bull and Miller received a long-legged stallion.

"Daron's a bull-he's got the biggest sack on the tour," McBride says. "The gnarlier, the steeper the course is, the better. He can be the best downhiller out there, but sometimes he tries too hard to crush the mountain. St. Moritz is a technical course with a lot of gliding. There are some mountains you can't crush. We have to work on that."

Then there's Miller, the distractable thoroughbred. "He's so talented, I think he gets bored by the business of ski racing," McBride says. "Not the two minutes running gates-he loves that. But everything else, he looks at the course for seven minutes and is, like, 'Yeah, whatever, see you at the race.' But if he dedicates himself, Bode has a shot at being the best all-around racer in the world."

Scratch his placid surface and you find that world domination is clearly something Miller wants. Once pigeonholed as a slalom specialist, he has been working on adding speed to his arsenal. Having Rahlves to measure himself against has helped. "D is such a monster in the speed events," Miller says. "I just try to keep up when we train. This season, if you look at my splits, I've been as fast as him. But I'm still making too many mistakes. If I can just ski clean, I know I'll be able to compete with D or Stephan Eberharter or anyone."

The day of the combined race in st. moritz, 20,000 fans brave the blowing snow and fill the vast horseshoe-shaped amphitheater erected around the finish line. The bright red fighter jets of the Swiss Air Force tear out of the cloud cover overhead, shaking the packed stands before slicing into the whiteout that blankets the starthouse on Piz Nair peak. In the athlete's lounge, Miller helps Rahlves fasten his spine protector, and the U.S. Teamers zip up their blue speed suits. Standing in a loose, confident pack, the Americans seem to both irritate and fascinate the other racers, like a clique of popular jocks in a high school cafeteria.

"Aaaa-wooooh!" McBride wolf-howls into the radio. "You boys ready?" Answering howls crackle across the U.S. Team radios. "Okay," McBride says. "Visibility at the top sucks, but we're sticking with our plan. Go all out. You'll have to fight for it at the top, but you can still smoke it."

Most of the Americans have decided to run only the first leg (the downhill), skipping the two slalom runs, to get extra training on the speed course for later in the week. Miller will do both, and he's a favorite to take it all, along with Austrian Benjamin Raich and Norwegians Lasse Kjus and Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who edged Miller for gold at the Salt Lake Olympics.

A fanfare blasted on 20 alpine horns announces the beginning of the race, and the crowd roars. Rahlves cranks hard on the upper course but loses time when he powers wide on a final turn. The U.S. racers radio back from the bottom, advising each other about choppy snow on the first few turns and the strong wind. When it's Miller's turn, he hurls himself down the 45-degree Free Fall-the steepest start in World Cup downhill history-accelerating to 70 miles an hour in seven seconds and fighting to see through the heavy fog. Clipping a gate, his goggles are knocked askew, and he battles his way down the rest of the course cleanly-despite snow stuck inside his lenses. Crossing the finish, Miller looks up at the leader board, expecting to see his name near the top. Instead, he finds himself in 17th place, almost three seconds behind Kjus, the leader.

Everyone knows Miller is capable of eating up the slalom, but three seconds seems insurmountable. "After that first run, I was kind of crushed," he admits later, "But I knew the combined is a long day and anything can happen." What happens next surprises even the supremely confident Miller. On his first slalom run, he slashes and jerks wildly through the course, and when the times are totted up, he's skied a second and a half faster than anyone else, making up half his deficit.

On the third and final run, Miller's reckless charge is a thing of beauty-he lunges rabidly at the gates, slapping them aside with his boot buckles, finding a straight line through a course that seems all curves for the other racers. Then, as Miller stands and watches, the Austrian Raich misses a gate. That leaves only Lasse Kjus. Kjus snakes through the course with the effortless efficiency of a slalom master, and the crowd rises to its feet as he crosses the line. But there on the video screen, for the world to see, is the newly minted world champion: Bode Miller, seven one-hundredths of a second faster than Kjus. Miller drops to his knees and buries his face in his hands, then rises and acknowledges the sound swirling around the amphitheater: "Bo-Dee, Bo-Dee, Bo-Dee!"

In the historic cobbled center of St. Moritz, at the heart of old-school Euroski culture, the revolution is being televised. Bode Miller, all-American slacker cool in baggy jeans, slouches shyly atop a podium between veterans Kjus and Aamodt. Then, as "The Star-Spangled Banner" booms out over the crowd and the Stars and Stripes is raised to the uppermost position, Miller hoists the crystal trophy over his head. Fans wave American flags and shrieking Swiss teenage girls who've painted Bode on their foreheads are swooning like it's a Justin Timberlake concert.

A few blocks away, the U.S. Team and its supporters squeeze into the American House, a grand name for a rented faux Irish pub, hastily decorated with banners. It doesn't compare to the vast stone-and-timber Austria House, purpose-built for these championships, but then who expected America to have so much to celebrate? Free beer stokes the crowd, and the coaches' victory cigars foul the air by the time Miller walks in.

Female groupies, who've somehow sleazed by security, hold out Sharpies and ask Miller to autograph their breasts. He declines, but several crocked U.S. coaches happily oblige. Miller tries to retreat to a corner with his father and girlfriend, Lizzie, but he's corralled by the crowd, pushed up on a couch, and prodded to speak. Unlike Rahlves, who painted number 1 on his chest and danced shirtless on the bar after his Kitzbühel win, Miller looks sheepish. "This medal belongs to all of you-the teammates who radioed reports and the technicians and coaches who prepared me perfectly," he says awkwardly. "This wasn't the best I've ever skied, but this was my best day on skis. Ever. Thank you all."

After the free beer has run dry and the crowd has thinned, Miller and Rahlves pose for a picture to document the irrefutable ascension of the American team.

There will be other moments. Five days later, Miller will win the giant slalom, too, and newspapers will crown him the King of St. Moritz. Two weeks after the championships, Rahlves will overcome a mistake at the top of the Garmisch downhill that kicks him back into 20th position at the split, then fire up the afterburners on the bottom of the course to finish third, a result he'll duplicate in the season's final downhill in Norway. At the end of the World Cup, Rahlves will end up second place in the overall downhill standings, the best and most consistent showing ever by an American in that discipline. And Miller will finish a close second in overall World Cup points to Stephan Eberharter, completing one of the finest all-around seasons in U.S. skiing history.

Rahlves cradles his Hahnenkamm trophy, a giant gold goat, and Miller clutches his crystal statuette from the combined. The photographer asks each of them to hold the trophies overhead with one hand. "This is heavy," Miller says.

"Careful with that thing. Don't drop it," Rahlves cautions.

"Don't worry," Miller says. "I'll get another."

The Party Crashers
Bode Miller
Age: 25 Height: 6'2" Weight: 210 pounds Hometown: Franconia, New Hampshir

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