Bode Miller has a skiing style that is not particularly stylish. It's more bullish and, at times, reckless. Some have called it "disastrous."
But, said Miller, sounding more confident that ever to the constantly reoccurring question, "It's not important what people think . . . I love the way I ski and I ski fast."
Touche, critics. Miller's much talked about skiing style took him to his fourth World Cup victory of the season Tuesday. It is the best skiing by an American since 1982 when Phil Mahre won six WC races.
He did it at night, under the lights, in Schladming, Austria, before a screaming crowd of 50,000 ski fans. And, despite his hesitation to say so, it set him up as a favorite for the slalom gold at Deer Valley in three weeks.
Not simply because he won the race and proved, beyond any doubt, he is, as he doesn't hesitate saying, the fastest technical skier in the world. But he did it before a crowd, an Olympic-size crowd, which he admitted in a telephone interview after the race, got his adrenaline pumping.
"It's easy to get fired up to run a great race with a big crowd. That happened tonight. I reacted to the bigger crowd. I like it when there's a lot of energy in the crowd. I can feel it," he said.
Miller was the first racer on the Austrian course. And, he was the leader after the first run. On the second run, under the reverse run order, he was 30th. Course conditions for his second run were bad. Rain on Monday softened the surface. In places the snow was chunky.
Slalom favorite Jean Pierre Vidal of France put in a second run that pushed him nearly two seconds ahead of his closest challenger. The decision Miller had to make was to risk a mistake and go for the win or hold back and settle for a silver or bronze.
"I could have made a conservative run and maybe finished second. But that's not what I wanted," he said. "It's a good thing that tonight I made a conscious decision to go 100 percent. I knew the 50,000 fans wanted to see me try. I wanted to ski my best."
Despite a slight bobble near the top of the course, Miller skied over the chunky and broken snow, shaved the gates, kept a straight line and skied his unusual style into first place.
Miller's time was one minute, 44.60 seconds. Vidal's time was a 1:45.26. Third was Ivica Kostelic of Croatia in 1:47.05. Tom Rothrock, of Cashmere, Wash., one of the youngsters on the U.S. team, finished 16th. He, in fact, had the fastest split time on the second run, but a major mistake near the finish cost him a possible podium appearance. Chip Knight of Stowe, Vt., was 21st and Erik Schlopy of Park City continued to struggle and finished 25th.
All the talk around Schladming was focused on Miller. He has, over the past month, taken on star status in Austria. He is recognized, hounded and appreciated.
Miller said it's come to be something special to him.
"I get a lot of compliments," he explained, "meaningful compliments. Like one person said 'I like to watch you ski because I feel you are honest with your sport.' They don't know you, but it's nice to hear things like that. It means a lot."
As for the Olympics, Miller said he's going home to rest and "pick up my girlfriend and swing her around. It's been a long time since I've been back home."
He is not, in the least, as his string of wins might indicate, worried about "peaking" too soon. In fact, he doesn't feel he's anywhere near peaking. "I've got quite a ways to go to improve. I can ski at a higher level than I am now," he said.
"My Olympic strategy is that I'm going to ski hard, as hard as I can. I'm not going to hold back. That wouldn't be honest with myself. Win or not, I'm going to race the way I want and not let the pressure of the crowd, my family or the team get to me."
The official naming of the U.S. Olympic team won't happen until early next week. Miller is, of course, certain to be named, as is Schlopy. The United States can enter four racers in each of the alpine events. Miller will ski the slalom, giant slalom and combined (downhill and slalom). Schlopy will ski in the slalom and GS. The race to fill the remaining seats, officials say, is close.