Jury is out on Miller's return to ski racing

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

LOS ANGELES – A snowstorm of sweetness, light and goodwill is how the world is supposed to see Bode Miller's comeback to professional ski racing.

Miller, the United States' best-known downhill star despite never having won Olympic gold, announced on Thursday the end of his seven-month hiatus from skiing and two-year exile from the U.S. Ski Team, just in time for preparations for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.

The marketing folk put on quite a show, booking out a room at the Staples Center and lining up journalists from around the world to participate in a question and answer session via internet and telephone.

The choreography was seamless – more than two questions and each interviewer was moved along with a "tsk tsk" and a tap on the shoulder – and the volume of painted-on smiles and PR paranoia made one wonder if a pop diva was about to take center stage.

So why the level of structure and caution surrounding an athlete who, while a huge superstar in Europe, could walk the streets of the City of Angels and command less attention than the latest reality television wannabe?

Perhaps it is because the carefully woven tale of harmony and redemption is flimsier than a cardboard ski pole.

Miller's abrasive manner is as legendary as his explosive bursts down the mountainside, and the concept of a jovial team environment, with him at its center, is laughable to those who have previously worked alongside him.

Two words that were barely mentioned Thursday were "money" and "publicity," yet it would appear that for all the happy vibes, those are two of the biggest factors for this reunion.

"All I can think is that it is about the cash," said Bryon Friedman, a two-time national champion and former teammate of Miller's. "It can get pretty expensive running your own crew and your own team.

"From a PR point of view, I can see the benefit to the ski team, but apart from that it is difficult to see how it makes sense. What is there to gain apart from that?"

Miller turned his back on the U.S. Ski Team after a lackluster 2006-07 season, which followed a disastrous Torino Games, where he generated more headlines for partying with a Playboy playmate that for his 0-for-5 performances on the hill.

However, by forming his own team and competing as an independent, he stormed to the 2008 overall World Cup title and cemented his status as one of the world's most electrifying racers.

In February this year, though, he turned his back on skiing after failing to finish in four straight races at the World Championships, citing poor form and lost motivation. A return to competition seemed unlikely. A reconciliation with the U.S. program was even more remote.

Yet two months ago Miller and his representatives reached out to U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick and discussions began in earnest.

At face value, the addition of such a talent would seem like a plus. Instead, there are severe reservations from those who previously worked closely with Miller as to whether his difficult manner will have a negative effect.

John McBride worked with Miller for 12 years in his role as U.S. coach and for two more as part of Miller's personal team, Team America. He feels the 31-year-old can benefit from being back in a team environment, but only if he applies himself properly.

"There is a lot of good that can come out of being in a team," said McBride. "But he has to be responsive to it. It is difficult after being out on your own and having your way of doing things, to stick to a routine and a set plan. You have to be open to it. I was surprised by this, for sure, and I really don't know how it will go."

Then there is the question of Miller's Olympic motivation. He has always been more focused on World Cup events, the five rings eliciting little more than bitterness from him despite a pair of silver medals in Salt Lake City in 2002.

"I don't think Bode sits up at night thinking about the Olympics," added McBride. "I'm not sure why, but he has been dispirited by his Olympic experiences, and while I don't want to speak for him, it doesn't strike me that it is his primary motivation."

Miller himself claims that this is a fresh start and a fresh approach, one he hopes will carry him all the way to the podium in Vancouver: "The intention is to come back and make everything positive. So that it is not a regurgitation of the past."

But many in U.S. skiing feel the current depth of talent, with seven men in the top 30 in the world standings, eliminates the need to look backward and pander to Miller.

"I'm not quite sure how much leadership they think they need," added Friedman. "They have got a bunch of veteran guys who are performing at a high level. They can try to paint Bode as this kind of mentor who is going to come in and be a great teammate. I beg to differ.

"It is hard to explain. It is almost like he ostracizes himself. There never seemed like he had any interest in the other guys and their lives. At times it would be like he was looking straight through you. He does his own thing, and I can't see that changing now."

Furthermore, Miller admits he is not in racing condition and has much work to do to get there. He will miss the World Cup opener in Austria on Oct. 25 in an attempt to sufficiently build up his physical levels.

"I am not in bad shape. but it is a far cry from being in race shape," he said. "I am getting old, too, and injury prevention becomes important."

Rearick is prepared to give Miller special treatment in one sense, by designing a unique preparatory program for him. However, the usual policy of alcohol limitations and behavorial demands will apply as stringently as with any other athlete. Whether or not he will have to abandon his RV, in which he traveled through Europe since the 2005 season and was a point of contention, was not addressed.

"He will have the same policies as everyone else," said Rearick. "We will work out an individual training program for him, but he will be expected to be a full part of the team in every sense."

Miller is an enigma. If he can bring back a medal for the U.S., then it will greatly enhance the profile and exposure of a sport that only gets one crack at the mainstream every four years. No other skier could have generated such interest with an announcement as Miller did Thursday.

This was just the first chapter of a story that is yet to unfold, but it seems certain to end with some kind of explosive finale. The question remains: Will it go down as a stroke of genius or as an embarrassment?

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