BEAVER CREEK, Colo. -- With more than two hours before another race in possibly his final World Cup season, Bode Miller sits at a table in a Beaver Creek lodge and waits. He's already blown through his inspection on the Birds of Prey course. Now there is one job left before he throws himself down the mountain when it actually counts: relax.
At 10,200 feet, the view through the oversized windows at the Spruce Saddle Lodge is straight out of a winter postcard. Endless rows of massive, snow-covered pines. Pristine, untouched powder as far as the eye can see. The cafeteria here serves more than burgers and pizza. There's sushi, pho and lobster tacos. Somewhere in the fog down below, reality exists. You just can't see it from up here.
At some point soon, the other 76 competitors in the field will finish their inspections and trickle in to begin their own game of hurry up and wait. Seventy-five of them will be younger than Miller, who is 36. But for now, he is alone. He can sit anywhere he wants. So of course he picks a chair with his back to the majestic view.
In his 16-year World Cup career, Miller has accomplished more on the side of a mountain than any other American ever. Five Olympic medals. Thirty-three World Cup wins. Two overall World Cup titles. He's done this in his own stubborn, hard-headed, outspoken way. But now, as he prepares for what likely will be his final Olympic run, Bode Miller seems different. There is patience where there used to be frustration. Maturity in places once populated by petulance. In the past 16 months, there is plenty to explain such transformation. His marriage to professional beach volleyball player Morgan Beck. A bitter, cross-country custody battle with the mother of his 11-month-old son. The sudden death of his younger brother, Chelone, a professional snowboarder with Olympic dreams of his own. But maybe the answer is far more simple. Is it possible that Bode Miller has just grown up?
As he pulls up to a table in the vacant lodge, Miller nods for me to join him. When I sit down, there are no smiles or hellos. Miller is lost in his own world. Something else is on his mind. It's unfiltered. Unpredictable. And 100 percent the Miller of old. He removes his helmet, goggles and gloves. He unbuckles his custom-made boots and unzips his sponsor-splashed racing suit. In the middle of all this motion, he begins.
"This sport is so f---ing stupid," Miller says. "The whole setup just doesn't make any sense."
THE DAY BEFORE the Birds of Prey downhill race, Morgan and I are chatting near the finish line when her phone lights up. She looks at the message and grins. It's Bode, up at the Spruce Saddle Lodge, bored. "I miss you," he writes, complete with an emoticon frown. Almost immediately, Morgan's cheeks turn a soft shade of red.
"See," she says, showing me the phone, "he's so cute. Who does that?"
Morgan is running on fumes, a victim of elevation-induced insomnia that stirred her out of bed at 2 a.m. She left her husband alone for most of the night, until finally nudging him 20 minutes before his alarm was set to go off.
"Do you think 20 minutes of sleep is a big deal?" she asked.
"No," Miller responded. "Why?"
"Great," she replied. "Then you can wake up with me!"
When the couple first met in May 2012, Morgan wanted no part. She had been through a divorce, had battled depression and was focusing on improving herself. "I was trying to be strong," she says. "You know, independent woman." Miller's reputation as a serial bachelor hardly seemed ideal. Her parents were equally unenthused.
"Everyone knows what they used to say about Bode," said Morgan's mother, Cindy Beck. "A playboy on skis."
But the two hit it off at one of Morgan's beach volleyball tournaments in Florida and became friends. Two weeks after Miller and Morgan Beck met, a woman Miller had met through a high-end dating service told Miller she was pregnant. And he was the father. Miller already had a daughter, Dace, who is now 5, with another woman in California. He called Morgan to his boat and told her the news. Her response? I'm here for you. I want to support you.
"Against all odds," Miller says. "She was rock solid."
Says Morgan, "He was so transparent and honest about everything, he made it easy to let him in my life."
But in the back of her mind, she wondered whether it was too good to be true. She worried that "something was going to bite me in the ass," she says. That moment came a few weeks later when Morgan found an inappropriate message Miller had sent to another woman. She won't reveal what the message said, but it crushed her. "He totally spit in my face," she says.
She told Miller she was done.
"He said, 'That sucks,'" Morgan remembers. "''Cause I'm in love with you.'"
Morgan refused to believe it. Her trust was gone. But Miller wouldn't go away. He showed up at her door to apologize. He cut ties with his female friends. He later linked his and Morgan's emails and text messages together so she could see every message he received. And he called Morgan's parents to apologize.
"He didn't couch his words," said Ed Beck, Morgan's father. "He came right out and explained what went on, why he thought he did it, how it didn't represent the way he felt about our daughter and how miserable this was. We weren't happy, but everybody makes mistakes. The key is how you handle those mistakes. And my prevailing thought after that conversation was that I had just gained even more respect for this man."
In the months that followed, Morgan says typically unflappable Miller was emotional.
"He cried for two months straight," she says. "He doesn't remember it. My friends thought he was nuts. He was always crying."
That September, the day before Miller was scheduled to leave on a training trip to Portillo, Chile, he asked Morgan to marry him. She said yes. After a week in Chile, the longest the couple had been apart since they met, Miller called Morgan with an idea. When he returned home, they should get married.
"And I was like, 'OK,'" Morgan says. "It felt right. I love him."
In October, the couple married in a quiet ceremony on the back of Miller's boat. Miller hand-picked the flowers and arranged Morgan's bouquet. Morgan baked their cake. The only other person in attendance was the officiant, who buckled over during the ceremony because of a health issue.
"He popped up after kneeling for like 30 seconds and was like, 'I'm sorry. I have an issue with my heart,'" Morgan said. "And [Bode and I] looked at each other like, 'This shouldn't be happening.'"
The man composed himself and completed the ceremony. When it was over, Bode and Morgan ordered room service from a nearby hotel. They were in bed by 9:30 that night.
"It was perfect," Morgan says. "To go through that process again, I didn't want it to be about the party. I wanted it to be about spending the rest of my life with someone."
BEAVER CREEK is often the only American stop for the FIS Alpine World Cup, which makes this week a reunion of sorts for Bode's and Morgan's families. More than 20 family members -- some meeting for the first time -- are in town to watch Miller ski. But it's a face Miller won't find at the finish line that he can't help but think about.
It was eight months earlier, during a visit home to New Hampshire, when Bode's mother, Jo, walked into the room with tears streaming down her face. Bode, Morgan and Dace were watching a movie at the time -- "Frankenweenie," to be exact -- when everything changed. On the other side of the country, in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., Bode's 29-year-old brother Chilly had been found dead of an apparent seizure in the van Bode had bought for him.
As Jo Miller began to explain to her oldest son what had happened, Bode went into shock. He stood up. He hugged his heartbroken mom. And then he began to sweat. And sweat. And sweat even more. His body couldn't process what his mind had just heard. His legs went numb. And every pore in his body seemed to open up, overcome with emotion.
"I was panicking," Morgan said. "I'm like, 'Are you OK? Are you OK? What is going on?' And he didn't know. It was scary."
For years, Bode and his brother had a rocky relationship, often butting heads over the complicated paths Chilly sometimes chose in life. As a boy, Chilly had been in and out of trouble and, at various points, hung around people Bode didn't think were positive influences. Then, in 2005, a motorbike accident nearly killed Chilly. A severe brain injury forced him to live several months with half his skull removed. Although Chilly eventually recovered, he was never the same. He suffered from chronic seizures that Jo Miller told Bode she knew would someday take her son.
A few days later, Bode and Morgan flew to California to pick up the van and Chilly's ashes. As he stepped into the place his brother used to call home, Bode broke down in tears. There was Chilly's snowboard equipment, reminding Bode of the talks they had about competing together in Sochi. There were the crystals Chilly and his friends would gather in the desert. The sunglasses Bode had lost and Chilly swore he knew nothing about. The golf clubs that reminded Bode of their trip to Dubai after the disappointment in Torino. And all over the van, pictures of the entire Miller family.
The van even still smelled like his brother.
"It was still so fresh and powerful," Miller said of that day. "I was hesitant to spend so much time there. You could just feel how final everything was. It was pretty rough."
As Bode and Morgan drove home for Morgan's volleyball practice the next day, Bode suggested they spend the night in the van. Sure, it might be a bit creepy. But Miller also felt it was a way to help come to terms with the reality of what had happened.
So that night, with his wife by his side, Bode lay in his brother's bed. He and Morgan talked, laughed and cried. He remembered the warning he had once given Chilly that, if he didn't get his life right, life would correct itself for him.
"You just lay there and try to accept some of his choices that didn't always match up with what I wanted for him," Miller said. "It all just sort of jumps out at you. And when you're in somebody else's area like that, you see things from a different light."
Time, Miller says, has not yet numbed the pain. But he chooses to remember the good times. In the months after his brother's death, he dreamed about snowboarding, which hadn't happened since he was a kid. When he grabbed a golf club, he found himself mimicking his brother's unique grip. He describes it as absorbing his brother's energy. If needed, Bode contends he could seek such energy to lift him in Sochi.
"It's superemotional, and there is a lot of love and passion and power there," Miller said. "If you can channel that into ski racing, it's possibly something that could make a difference."
BODE MILLER does not sit still very well. And he thrives on competition. So one afternoon after training, Bode heads to the town of Vail to play tennis with Morgan, Kenney and Carey.
The sport has been a mainstay in the Miller family for decades, with Bode's grandparents starting the Tamarack Tennis Camp in New Hampshire in the 1960s. The camp still runs today. Bode himself was a state high school singles champion and each year hosts a tennis tournament at Tamarack to raise money for the Turtle Ridge Foundation, his nonprofit that supports adaptive and youth sports programs. Morgan is still a beginner. She guesses today is the 10th time she's picked up a racquet.
"Honey," she says to her husband before they begin, "you're going to have to do something to make me better."
Miller hates playing here, moaning that the elevation messes with the flight of the ball. Regardless, with training scheduled for the next day and a race in less than 72 hours, conventional wisdom would suggest this is a bad idea. But that's not Miller. A few years back in Croatia, Miller and his crew played flag football on a sheet of ice the day before a race. Miller was diving all over the place, cutting up his hands and doing everything he could to win. And watching in sheer disbelief was the father of Austrian skier Marcel Hirscher. A few days later, the elder Hirscher pulled Carey aside.
"He was like, 'I saw you with Bode and the guys, and I thought this was absolutely crazy in the middle of the season,'" Carey recalled. "But then he went back to the hotel and saw his son pedaling on a stationary bike staring at a blank white wall. Then, he said, it all made sense."
Today, Miller's tennis game isn't particularly sharp, and neither is Morgan's. She hits it into the net. Over the baseline. Another shot ricochets into the next court. With each stroke, she gets more and more frustrated. The couple loses the first set 6-1.
"I need some pep talks," Morgan says.
Instead, Miller pulls her close to him. He gives her a peck on the lips. He leans in for a second kiss, but signals are crossed and she instead gives him a highfive. As Morgan turns to walk away, Miller asks her to return. He gets his second kiss.
As the match continues, Morgan's frustration only builds. But uber-competitive Miller doesn't mumble a negative syllable. He's never been outwardly competitive, choosing instead to internalize the emotions that fly through him before and after a race. On this day, he wants nothing more than to beat his uncle. But instead, he's resigned to the role of supportive husband.
"I quit," Morgan says. "I'm terrible."
"No, no," Bode replies. "You're right there. I'm telling you."
The Millers lose the second set 6-3. "Nice playing, boys," Bode says. "We gotta get it dialed in a bit more."
Bode then hops to the other side of the net and begins working with Morgan on her game. For an extra 15 minutes, Miller hits balls to his wife, pointing out details such as footwork and the way she holds the racquet. When they finish, Morgan is still unimpressed with herself.
"This makes me so mad," she says. "When you're an athlete, you want to be amazing at everything. And at this, clearly, I'm not."
Bode lifts his hand and puts it on top of Morgan's thigh. The message is clear: relax. She grabs his hand. She forces out a smile.
BEFORE MILLER heads back to the hotel for dinner, there's still one more physical chore he needs to finish. They're called grinders, which translates loosely to living hell on your legs.
"If you do it the right way," Miller says. "This is as bad as it gets."
The farther racers go in an Alpine run, the more they lose control of their legs. By the end of a race, a skier's legs are shot. Grinders help delay that fatigue as long as possible. And, with Miller having undergone microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2012, the extra work is critical.
"The idea is that there is nothing his legs will face on the mountain that will challenge him like this," Kenney says.
For three minutes, Miller will pedal with the bike set to maximum resistance, targeting between 350 to 375 watts of power. He'll do this three times.
Kenney keeps the time on his wristwatch. With one minute down, Miller stares straight at the ground. Beads of sweat begin to fall from the tip of his nose and the ledges above his lips and eyebrows. As the seconds go by, Miller begins to groan. He pulls on the handlebar, his forearms flexing with each stroke. He stands up, out of the seat, searching for the power he needs to finish. He tucks his head into his left arm, trying to ignore the pain.
"Tough it out!" Kenney barks. "Let's go!"
Miller continues to pedal. Quad, hamstring. Quad, hamstring. The resistance prevents Miller from building any sort of rhythm. This is all him.
"My ... medialis ... is cooked," he says. "Holy ... f--- ..."
Kenney counts down the final seconds of the first set.
"3 ... 2 ... 1 ... Done."
Miller climbs off the bike and falls flat on the floor. He stares up at the ceiling, his arms stretched out to the side as if he were about to make snow angels on the carpet. When he's eventually able, he speaks.
"That last minute was f---ing aggressive," he says. "There's a point where you feel tough and there's a point where you just don't care anymore and you want to stop."
It's training moments such as these, as well as those on the mountain, that Kenney believes separate the good from the great, the great from the best ever. With Miller, the physical has never been a question. He was born a perfect skier. The quickness and agility needed for slalom. The power and weight needed for downhill. Balance with response time. Large joints to absorb the brutal forces. Good connective tissue. And freakish athletic ability.
"When the slot machine came up, it gave him everything he needed," Kenney says.
But at the same time, Kenney believes, the commitment to year-round training wasn't always there throughout Miller's career. Instead of focusing on skiing every minute of every day, Miller tried to lead a more balanced life in the offseason, playing golf and tennis and enjoying the social perks as one of the most recognized athletes in the world. Kenney agrees it would have been wildly out of character for Miller to do so, but, if he had dedicated every minute of every day to being the absolute best skier he could be, Miller potentially could have tripled his 33 career victories.
"He's probably the greatest underachieving ski racer in history by a long shot," Kenney says. "He could have 100 [World Cup wins] easily. He could have been the best with the four-event ability like he's had."
On this day, Miller is merely trying to survive in a room full of empty stationary bikes. As middle-aged women begin trickling in for a spin class, they look at Miller and just shake their heads. They have no idea who he is. Even less of an idea that this is all for Olympic gold.
"You know those guys you see that drop off the back of the peloton?" Miller says. "That's me."
AS HE STANDS behind the starting gate waiting for the signal to begin his downhill run, there is one prevailing emotion Miller fights to erase: fear. Although he has started more than 400 World Cup races in his career, it's always there. He isn't alone. Ask any racer in today's field and he'll tell you the exact same thing.
It's in that moment just before they're set to takeoff, when they visualize their maneuvers in the course below, that they can't help but see the worst outcome possible. They've all crashed before. And most of them know the pain that comes with reconstructive surgery and grueling rehabs. This is the reality of what they do: Flying down a sheet of ice at speeds greater than a car travels on the highway leaves no room for error. One hooked edge, one wrong turn, the slightest shake in balance and the result could be catastrophic. But somehow, the fear must be flushed.
It's no wonder when asked to describe the traits that make a great downhill skier, Carey simplifies it: "You've got to have balls," he says. "That's it."
Miller explains it with a bit more tact.
"When you're in the turn, when the s--- starts to go south on you, you need to have that attitude that you absolutely won't back off," he says. "Everyone is great when things go perfect. But when it goes wrong, the guys who win are the guys who can stay aggressive."
Yet doing so hardly guarantees success. In 429 World Cup starts, Miller has won 33 races, a little less than 8 percent of his starts. And he's one of the best ever. The guys like Miller, who tend to bring it the most, are the ones who often spend the most time in the hospital. And thus, maniacally controlling his thoughts in all aspects of his life is critical. As he once told Marcus, his close friend and business partner, Bode is in charge of whether Bode is happy. Nobody else. He even refuses to let songs get stuck in his head.
"You never worry about Bode," Marcus said. "He's going to do what he wants to do. It's like with he and Morgan -- he is all-in. Most people in a relationship, at some degree they're lucky if they're in the high 90s, 94 percent committed, whatever. Bode puts all his chips in the middle. He's 100 percent in, and nobody and nothing can stop that train."
Call it what you want -- mental toughness. Intestinal fortitude. Stubbornness. Whatever the label, Miller does nothing without thinking about it first. And once the thought is there and his mind is made up, you're not going to change it. The trials of the past 16 months have tested these traits as much as any other point in Miller's life. Beyond Chilly's death and the still-ongoing custody battle with Sara McKenna, in January 2013, Morgan suffered a miscarriage with Bode's baby during a red-eye flight to Europe. A month earlier, Bode struck Morgan in the eye with a golf ball, an accident that resulted in 50 stitches and vision damage that still plagues her today. Morgan believes the stress of the accident as well as the custody battle played a role in her miscarriage. On several occasions, she crumbled under the stress, often taking it out on her husband.
"She can be wicked harsh and just say the meanest things," Bode says. "'I didn't sign up for this bulls---. You're an a--h---.' When she goes off, I mean, she goes f---ing off. That's why I told her it's a miracle that we found each other."
They've survived, Miller believes, because of the unique way their personalities complement each other. Morgan is passionate, emotional and sometimes high-strung. She is the one who seethes at the mere mention of McKenna. Miller is strong, unflappable and often seems as if he's emotionally flatlining. He looks at life's tests as an opportunity to become a better person.
"When I think about my life, I've always been the same," Miller says. "Bring it on. I mean, I want f---ing everything. If there is some sort of challenge, some way to test myself or grow or expand, bring it. I'll do it. Even if I suffer. Even if I fail. Even if it challenges you to a point you don't think you can handle, bring it f---ing on."
In the moments when Morgan snaps, Miller says he's able to internally dial it down and walk away. It's a lesson Miller first learned as a teenager when he responded to a coach's critique by saying, "Are you f---ing stupid?" That same coach later played a role in disqualifying Miller from the Junior Olympics team.
"I antagonized at the wrong time," he says now. "That was poor decision-making. When you're in the moment and somebody says that s---, you have to have the discipline to activate those tools and realize it's not going to go well if I respond the way every cell in my body wants to respond right now. You have to think it all through. And it takes wicked discipline."
A FEW MINUTES before the downhill race begins, Ed Beck bumps into Bode's father, Woody Miller, behind the finish line. Woody, who divorced Bode's mom and has since remarried, has never been one to say much, Bode says, preferring instead to avoid conflict at all costs. Ed asks Woody what he and his wife picked out for Bode in the family Secret Santa exchange. Two things, Woody explains. A wind chime made from horse shoes and a book filled with pictures of horses.
It might seem like a strange gift for a 36-year-old world class skier. Unless you know Bode Miller. When the day comes that he walks away from competitive ski racing, training racehorses is the next adventure waiting for him.
"He's going to apply some of this Bode unconventional thinking to horse training," his friend Marcus says. "He's really going to open some eyes."
Miller hasn't missed a Kentucky Derby since 1999. He has become friends and business partners with trainer Bob Baffert. During Miller's travels throughout Europe this winter, Morgan said her husband has spent much of his free time buried in all things horses, be it a new book about unconventional training methods or watching races online and timing horses.
His obsession has even taken over his subconscious, as evidenced by a bizarre dream he had this past September in Chile. Miller dreamed there was a gray filly in Temecula, Calif., that he needed to buy. He says he had never been to Temecula. Didn't even know it existed. But the next morning he called Morgan and told her to head to Temecula right away.
"I kept thinking my husband is crazy," Morgan says. "My mom said to me, 'You sure know how to pick 'em, sweetie.'"
After a 90-minute drive, Morgan and her mom arrived at Whispering Meadows Ranch in Temecula, where Morgan relayed her husband's dream to trainer Segrid Lunde. As Morgan began to describe the horse in the dream, Lunde knew exactly whom she was talking about, Spensive Mae.
"People come to me for strange reasons all the time," Lunde said. "It was funny."
The horse was even recovering from an eye injury similar to Morgan's after running into a branch. When Miller returned home, he and Morgan went back to visit Mae again. They bought the horse.
"There's no question that's where his passion is," Morgan says.
BACK AT THE Spruce Saddle Lodge, shortly after unveiling his candid and colorful take on the sport of skiing, Miller pauses, as if he's waiting for a response. It's a juicy sound bite, of course, the type that, if taken out of context, could stir another Miller-fueled controversy. But then he begins to explain. It isn't the act of skiing itself that irritates him. It's the way races are set up. If Miller had his way, organizers would ice the heck out of every course. They'd allow two training days when every skier would get two or three runs. They'd get the course all choppy and hacked up and then, on the third day, they'd have the race.
"You talk about actually seeing who the best racer is? That would do it," Miller says. "Not the other s--- that decides this."
With his rant complete, the conversation turns back to legacy. At some point in Sochi, the man with the 33 World Cup victories, five gold medals and two overall World Cup championships will take what likely will be his final Olympic run. He'll block the fear out of his mind, search for the line between destiny and disaster, and push his aging body as far as it will go. He knows he'll be judged by a clock that day, just as it has always been.
To Miller, the Olympics, really, are for everyone else. Family, friends, fans, sponsors and even the critics. For him, it's just another week atop another breathtaking mountain -- the same as it has been for nearly every winter since he was a boy. Only, when the Olympic rings are involved, the entire world watches and reacts as if his eternal happiness depends on that 1/100th of a second. He understands. The Games are a prepackaged, made-for-television event, and he's one of the stars of the money-making show. The difference this time around? He's not trying to fight it.
"For a while, I was bent on making people realize the true reality of things," Miller said. "And I'd get so frustrated. At this point, I've accepted the way things are. Even though it's not reality, the ideal of the Olympics is important. All the people who watch are inspired and then chase their dreams; if I can be some small part of that, it's worth it to me."
At some point, when Miller's races in Sochi are finally over, the media will try to put a neat bow on Miller's Olympic legacy and what it all meant. He, of course, will try not to pay attention to what they say. A legacy, after all, isn't just something you pick out at the store. It's a compilation of all things you've done in your career -- the good and bad.
"I made a lot of mistakes," he says. "I did a lot of stupid things. But it's so miraculous where I am now with the achievements, the successes, the failure and growth I've gone through personally.
"While I'd love to go back and change things or say I regret certain things, I really think I'd buy the whole thing. I'd buy the whole package. Just because it's so hard to know what made the difference for me ending up where I am today."
He's here because his body still allows him to be. And because every day he heads down the mountain, there's another lesson to learn. Not about the right set of skis or the perfect angle for a turn, but about life. There is perhaps no other sport that requires so much emotionally. With each run, the mental challenges get harder. And the improvements grow smaller. Make a mistake and the consequences can be brutal. But stick it out, refuse to give up and in the end it's all worth it. Skiing, he says, is a learning tool in his development as a human being.
"The lessons I've learned have helped make me a better person," he adds.
So, has Bode Miller changed? Of course he has. He's still the same belligerent, stubborn, competitive athlete who refuses to take no for an answer. He still sometimes lives in a fantasy world and admittedly makes stupid mistakes. His language isn't always church approved. He's still learning -- as we all are.
"I have more tolerance," he says. "More patience. It's allowed me to accept the world for what it is so I'm not quite as abrasive in the same circumstances that I would have been before.
"Obviously, I'd prefer that people have a great opinion of me. But when they don't, I'm more just, 'Let it go. I'm all right.'"
And with that, I thank Miller for his time. I shake his hand, stand up from the table and gather my bag to leave. That's when Miller offers one parting thought.
"I'm not sure it's going to be any good," he tells me.
"What's that?" I ask.
"The story," he replies. "You know how I keep putting myself out there but nobody seems to get it? I'm not sure you're going to be any different."