Shelton: Bode Goes His Own Way, Once Again | View to the West
by Peter Shelton
May 25, 2007 | 331 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It may seem an odd time of year for U.S. ski team news, but I couldn’t resist these items in the headlines recently. (The ski team is, in fact, beginning its summer training schedule this week after a couple of months away. Dry land work in Park City will be followed by on-snow sessions at Mount Hood, Oregon, then on to New Zealand, and later in the summer, to Portillo, Chile.)

The first item was the very sad, but culturally and perhaps genetically revealing, story of Bode Miller’s cousin, Liko Kenney. (Bode, of course, is the prodigiously talented, maverick ski racer from New Hampshire who disappointed many with his whimsical attitude at the last Olympic Games but who remains unquestionably the best American male ski racer of the last quarter century – maybe the best ever.)

In the tight, rural communities around Franconia, New Hampshire, everybody knows everybody, and questioning authority is more than just an old hippie bumper sticker. Liko, who was 24, had had run-ins before with a certain local cop. Bad blood apparently flowed deep between them. On May 12, this cop stopped Liko for speeding, and in the ensuing melee Liko shot and killed the policeman. Soon after, a passerby used the dead officer’s revolver to blow Liko away. Anger, disrespect, pride (plus the sacred Second Amendment) equaled two men dead on the side of the road.

That same day, Bode announced in Park City that he would be leaving the U.S. ski team at age 29 to race as an independent. The two events were not connected; Bode didn’t know what had happened back home in Franconia. But his announcement to leave the team, after 11 years, came as a surprise to almost no one who has followed his career. This is one stubborn, opinionated, “Live Free Or Die” New Englander, and the U.S. ski team is one tightly regimented, top-down organization against which Bode has chafed from the beginning.

The most recent affront to Bode being Bode came during the World Cup season just ended. The team decided that all Americans competing on the circuit would have to sleep in the team hotel. The rule was aimed directly at Bode who preferred to sleep and eat and relax – now and then with a beer or two, away from prying eyes – in his own motor home.

A World Cup winter can be brutal on Americans off in Europe for months at a time, sometimes straight through from December to March. While Austrians can go home for breaks between races, the Americans have to try to function efficiently, and stay happy, living out of suitcases and team vans, with foreign food, foreign-language fatigue, and roommate claustrophobia – among a laundry list of expatriate aches.

Bode and a number of other top racers solved some of these problems by living out of their own rigs. One of Bode’s best friends from New Hampshire drove and cooked for him. The system seemed to work as Bode won the World Cup overall crystal globe – the highest honor in ski racing – in 2005. He was the first American to do so since Phil Mahre and Tamara McKinney in 1983.

But after the perceived embarrassment of the 2006 Games, during which Bode brought home no medals and was seen partying into the night some nights, the team decided to crack down. Bode went along for one season. He slept in their hotels, finished fourth overall this year (2007), winning four races and the season-long Super-G title. But when the team laid down new rules at a meeting with Bode early in May, he had had enough and made his announcement.

The decision is entirely of a piece with who Bode is. The wonder is he stuck with the team for as long as he did.

By now everybody knows the story of how Bode grew up – free to roam in a 500-acre wood, with hippie parents in a house with no electricity or indoor plumbing. He defied ski coaches from an early age but showed enough self-aware genius to move up the ladder. As a teen he ignored conventional wisdom and raced on K2’s new hourglass-shaped skis, recognizing before anyone else their pure carving potential. On the national team at 18, he continued to confound coaches with his go-for-broke approach, but he also posted brilliant – even revolutionary – results.

The best racers in the Alps were awed by what Bode could do on skis. The U.S. team pretty much had to go along. Besides, the sport’s history is littered with brilliant iconoclasts: Durrance, Killy, Stenmark, Girardelli; they all pretty much invented themselves, and their techniques, independent of team structure. Girardelli famously invented his own team, leaving his native Austria to become the lone racer representing tiny Luxemburg.

You’d think the U.S., with its myth of the individual, would have produced numerous stars in this individual sport. And it has. But the team concept (and anyone who hopes to compete at the highest levels must aspire to the team) has squashed an even greater number of potential stars.

In the 1980s, Phil and Steve Mahre survived the team by politely ignoring it; they refused training camps and trained at home on their dirt bikes instead. Peekaboo Street was booted off the team more than once, I think, for sexual and sundry other insubordinations. More recently the peerless Alaskan freeskier Jeremy Nobis cut short a promising downhill career because he just couldn’t stomach team strictures, team philosophy.

Two of the greatest skiers I worked with in ski schools around the West were kicked off the U.S. team for acting out their anger. One dangerously left his skis in the middle of a slalom course and walked away, so disappointed was he after missing a gate. The other broke a beer bottle on a bar top in a fight over some now-forgotten point of honor.

As far as I know, Bode has never shown himself to be violent. He has never crossed the line his cousin Liko crossed, the one that says society must balance the rights of the individual against the welfare of the whole. (The ski team’s parallel and inherently contradictory role is to provide a framework – money and discipline and bureaucratic sanction – while at the same time nurturing the uncoachable fire-in-the-belly that is a prerequisite to winning.) Bode’s sin, as far as organized skiing goes, is actually far worse than anti-social behavior. Bode doesn’t care about winning. After having won just about everything he can win, his goal now is purer, simpler, if more elusive. The goal, as stated in his memoir, Bode: Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun, is not to acquire medals but to ski “as fast as the natural universe will allow.”

This is Bode being Bode, Bode instinctively parsing the physics of sliding downhill. For him it’s always been about creating arcs and speeds that no one else has yet achieved on snow – an individual vision. Too bad the rule makers at the United States Ski Association can’t see their way to accommodating that.


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