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At five minutes past nine last Thursday morning a helicopter lifted U.S. skier Bode Miller into a cloudless blue sky above the idyllic Swiss mountain village of Wengen. Twelve minutes later Miller was dropped off at the top of a slalom training course on an icy slope in Adelboden, 2½ hours from Wengen by train or car. Miller skied six brisk runs while the helicopter, which had been rented by his ski sponsor, Rossignol, waited. Just after 11 a.m. he was whisked back across the craggy peaks of the Jungfrau Alps to Wengen and left at the top of the venerable Lauberhorn downhill course, where he changed skis and ripped through a training run for the next day's race. It's safe to say that if you're commuting to work by helicopter on somebody else's dime, life is good.
Miller's life is better than most, and it's improving at a blurring pace. Just over a year ago he was a stubborn New Hampshireman who had speed and potential but often crashed. Last winter he began staying upright, and he won four races on the World Cup circuit and two silver medals (the U.S.'s only Alpine medals, in giant slalom and combined) at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Last spring he signed a con-tract to use Rossignol skis, which, with incentives and endorsements, could earn him a base of $1 million over the next two years, according to ski industry sources.
Now Miller, 25, is having the season of his life, shocking the ski world by raising the level of his downhill skiing to nearly match his brilliant slalom and giant slalom work, and making himself a threat not only to claim this year's World Cup overall points title, but also to become just the fifth skier in history to win World Cup races in all five disciplines (slalom, giant slalom, downhill, Super G and combined).
"I am amazed by what he has done," says 1972 Olympic downhill champion Bernhard Russi of Switzerland, who designs downhill courses and follows the World Cup closely. "I can see him getting stronger every time he races downhill. If he keeps on skiing the way he is right now, soon there will be nobody who can beat him in anything. He has more potential than any skier to become totally dominant." It has been a swift and dizzying climb, yet Miller isn't slowing. Before this winter he was sensational in the slalom events but mediocre in the more harrowing speed disciplines of downhill and Super G. Now he has moved into the top 10 among the world's speed skiers. Last weekend in Wengen, he took second place in a combined downhill-slalom (using Friday's downhill and Sunday's slalom) and moved past Austria's Stephan Eberharter into the World Cup overall lead. No American has won the World Cup overall title since Phil Mahre did so from 1981 to '83. "I expect him to be competitive with me for the rest of the year," says Eberharter, who is regarded as the best ski racer in the world (even with Hermann Maier's return last week). "He's young. He's good. He takes big risks."
And among American racers, he is not alone. One year after Miller saved the U.S. ski team from an Olympic shutout, one of his teammates, speed specialist Daron Rahlves, has won a World Cup downhill and reached the medal podium on three other occasions. Another teammate, Erik Schlopy—one of the best technical skiers in the world before he was waylaid by mononucleosis in 2002—has twice finished in the top five in World Cup races. It turns out that Miller has coattails.
"We have a guy on our team who's [going around] in a helicopter—that's approaching the aura of a Tomba," says Schlopy, alluding to three-time Olympic champion Alberto Tomba of Italy. "It rubs off on the team. It's pride, and maybe even a mix of pride and envy, but it rubs off in a good way"
Rahlves, the 2001 Super G world champion, whose turf is most threatened by Miller's expansion, says, "I want to ski faster, he wants to ski faster. We can feed off each odier. I still like to think I'm the fastest guy on this team in downhill, and I'm going to try as hard as I can to prove that."
Miller is the only U.S. Alpine skier who left Salt Lake City with buzz. He took time off in the spring to vacation in Hawaii and to win the Superstars competition in Jamaica before turning to his future. First order of business was a new ski contract.Not only was his two-year deal with Fischer in its final year, but Miller felt the company owed him $91,000 in incentives for second-place finishes in last year's combined Olympic and Wengen competitions. He has since filed suit against Fischer in New Hampshire Superior Court. "I'm sure they're hurting for money; everybody in the business is," Miller says of Fischer. "But when you sign a contract, you pay." (Fischer executives declined to comment.)
Fischer did try to keep Miller by offerring a two-year contract at $350,000 per year, plus incentives, according to David Auer, president of Fischer U.S. But Rossignol offered Miller a two-year deal at nearly $1 million, with significant incentives, including mid-five figures for winning a World Cup race and substantially more for winning the overall title. "We lost Bode over money," says Auer. "He cashed in on his Olympic success."
Miller says it was much more than that."Fischer built the skis I wanted," he says, "but I need to be with a company that's also capable of doing it on its own. Rossignol has top-notch research and development. It has the ability to be the Number 1 ski company in the world, and that's perfect, because my goal is to be the best in the world in five events."