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Bode Miller: King of the Mountain

When the greatest American skier of all time says he wants to talk, you listen. I met the two-time World Cup champion and five-time U.S. Olympian at the Bomber Ski boutique on Madison Avenue, where the brand was launching their new VIP program to help people find extraordinary ski experiences. The always candid Miller didn’t hold back as he talked about the expectations that came with making it to the top of the skiing world and how he continues to climb new mountains as an entrepreneur.

How did you become part owner of Bomber Skis?
As with most good business deals, it began on the golf course (laughs). Robert Siegel (CEO of Bomber Ski) and his friend had bought a charity golf outing with me, and we went to California to play Pebble Beach and Spyglass. Robert and I had a very similar outlook. I told him about ideas I had for starting a company. He had just recently bought the Bomber trademark and was in the process of trying to buy the factory. Very quickly, the conversation evolved on what we thought was missing from the sport, what we loved about it and where the opportunity lay.

How so?
The equipment side of skiing has been commoditized for a long time. I had been traveling around with with 50, 60, even 100 pairs of skis for my entire World Cup career. I knew how much of a beating that was more than most people. I saw people not buying skis the way they were. I thought there was a gap there, and Robert had already made moves seeing that same gap that I did. I obviously wanted to own my own company, so that I had effective control and could direct it, because I know how tricky it can be when you start having price point issues. We were already on the same page, so we started conversations about how I could join the company. I wanted to make sure I had ownership and skin in the game, and that I could use my knowledge of 30 years in the ski industry, 25 years of it at the top. We came to terms, and here we are.

What did you feel was missing, and how do you feel that you both are filling that void?
The equipment side of skiing has been this reverse auction for 40 years. Skiing is inherently an expensive sport. And ski companies viewed that as the main obstacle. So they were all beating each other up and getting cheaper and cheaper, moving everything to Asia, and they cut out a bunch of the materials that made skis good. But because it was a long, slow process—over three or four decades—no one really noticed that it wasn’t the same as it was before. There were obviously technological advances that kind offset that to some degree. But the commoditized version, in every other area, people who care about quality and want to invest their time or their passion to something can take a step forward. If they’re willing to spend more, they can get better stuff. In the ski world, it wasn’t like that. Now you’re starting to see more pop up boutique ski companies, but in general, you couldn’t buy the Porsche or Ferrari or Lamborghini or a Bentley of the ski world. It’s just didn’t exist.

Why didn’t it exist?
For these companies, everything was made in the same factories, and it was all garbage. You could go and spend $100,000 buying beautiful clothes for your whole family in Gorsuch, but you went downstairs and bought the same $300 skis that everyone else is buying. We saw that as one part of the market. and The other piece is the performance and safety of the skis. I know a lot of people who don’t ski because they just see it as too dangerous. I’ve always skied on handmade skis, because I was racer. My skis were phenomenal. People would ask me what skis they should buy, and I would ask them, “What color do you like?” Because they’re all the same. Fisher was making skis for Rossignol and Atomic at that time and they were competitors. But they’re making them in their factory with all the same stuff, so it didn’t make any difference. And I wanted to be able to tell people that if you care about skis, and you care about safety, buy these skis. They are perfect for a big range of conditions. If you hit an ice patch, you’re not even going to notice.

Now that you are sure moving in this direction, are other brands following your lead?
Absolutely. We weren’t necessarily the first to make custom or handmade skis, but I think we do a better job of it. And a lot of these companies that did that, they had to use other facilities. They couldn’t afford to buy their own factory. People were making them out of their garage, and there are inherent problems with that. Robert Siegel had the foresight to buy the factory. The piece that I think we are really bringing to bear now is the VIP or concierge system. People don’t want to travel with even two pairs of skis on a trip. I’ve been to places all over the world over a long period of time, with exposure to some of the greatest people on the planet. I had amazing times, and it was empowering and inspirational. We feel like that’s missing as well. If you’re just a random person and you go to a course on Vail or Aspen, how do you find that true experience? How do you give your family the kind of experience is going to make them fall in love with skiing and outdoors for the rest of their life and build character? And so we’re combining those things together—the high quality materials and the experiences. No one else is doing that.

How are the products safer?
Because I was a racer and I was the best in the world for a little bit. people assume that a ski I make is too much for them. It’s going to be this race ski. They’re going to go 1,000 miles per hour out of control. For a person who has never skied before all the way up to expert skiers, we use a lot of time and energy to build them specifically so that no matter what level you are, it’s going to make your time out on the hill better and safer. That’s a huge part of it, because overcoming that fear is part of what’s exhilarating about skiing. The sport has been so stagnant for so long with innovation and technology. Bindings haven’t changed in 45 years. Boots haven’t changed in nearly 40 years. That’s insane to me, where the safety is not being taken seriously. The whole design of the bindings and release points and all that stuff is so compromised. We’re going to be able to sort through that whole thing and continue to best in class all the way across the board.

Do you think you can be more or less influential now that you are retired from competitive skiing?
There’s two parts to that. I’m certainly not in the limelight as much, so I can’t impact the sport as much because I’m not always on TV. But at the same time, I was handcuffed to the company that I was with and their business model, and these are mostly public companies that are locked into profits. I couldn’t affect change because they weren’t willing to invest in that, and it wasn’t part of their business model. So now we’re in a company where one of our aspirations is to affect change. So with those handcuffs off, I have a lot more influence. There’s a much more authentic message now than there was in the past. I always loved the company I was on. I didn’t switch just for money. But it wasn’t really my belief system, it was the company’s system.

Did you always see yourself becoming an entrepreneur?
Yes, from a really young age. I was born with not much money and had to pay for my ski habit for a long time. So I was a hard worker by nature. I was driven to figure out more clever ways of making money. I have a naturally engineering based mind. I first worked on developing the shaped skis with K2. I was always trying to innovate. I did it with my clothing and with my helmet, and I was always looking at things from an analytical side, which I think fits well with entrepreneurship. You have to be able to see the markets, innovate, take risks—all that stuff is part of my personality.

What sort of things did you do as a kid to feed your ski habit?
My uncle had a tennis court company, so I built and resurfaced tennis courts all over New England. If there’s a worse job, I haven’t found it. It’s 70-hour weeks. You’d get up in the dark and do the hoeing, raking, shoveling, pulling weeds, nailing tapes, and trying to smooth out a tennis court. You would get back when it’s dark, pass out, and get up and do it again. I did that for a long time. That really solidified my belief that I didn’t like working (laughs). I didn’t like having a boss. even if it was my uncle, but because I was willing to work that way, he would loan me the money for the next year. Or he would forward me the money and I’d work it off the next summer. Eventually, I realized through self analysis and economics that I had to bust his balls to get a bigger raise, which drove me to take more responsibility and hyper-accelerated my development. I was forced to look at the economics. I had to take responsibility for it, because I wasn’t getting any money from anybody else. All those lessons were important shaping components to my life and personality.

You were also a really good soccer player. Was there ever any thought of pursuing anything besides skiing?
The other sports were critical to my development, because I learned a lot about myself and about competition and skill acquisition. I played tennis at a high level, soccer, hockey. I snowboarded at a high level. I think when I was seven years old when I had a conversation with my grandmother about it. I talked to her about tennis and how frustrating it was when I played against a pusher or somebody who, you knew you were better than and you could just crumble and fall apart. And I realized how dependent you are on other players in soccer. I was a chess piece on a board. There was so many other players and I didn’t have ownership of the outcomes. In skiing, it was objective. There were no judges. I had complete ownership and a measuring stick that was consistent all the time. If I was faster, I won. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought. That really had a lot of appeal. When I asked my grandmother about it, she said skiing takes a lot of work, and it’s not a very lucrative sport. But if you do it right and you love it, then you stick to it. I still played all the other sports, but I pretty much knew that skiing was going to be the one.

When did you feel like that becoming a professional was in reach?
I won races early, but little tiny races that didn’t mean anything. I mean, somebody wins every single race (laughs). And when I was 15 at boarding school, no one was thinking that I was going to be anything good. People were pushing me to switch and do other things, because I was still more accomplished with other sports. But I think I believed it when I was seven. I knew at that point that because of the things that I had—my stubbornness, my determination—I have a lot of resolve. When I dig in, I’m not going to stop. It was a longer term investment in a goal that I knew I wasn’t going to be any good until I was 20 or 25, even older. I just have to make it there and do all the steps in between. When I was in my late teens, that was the crunch time. I was graduating high school, and I still didn’t have any money. I was forced to either go solo and try to find money to continue to pursue it or go to college, and skiing college basically ends your professional career. Almost nobody makes it from college to World Cup. So I had a couple of really good results, and that’s where I forced K2 to build that shaped ski and that propelled me onto the ski team and move things forward.

In your career, you’ve been outspoken about not defining your success by accolades or medals, but by skiing the fastest you possibly can to reach your true potential. Based on that metric, do you feel like you ever reached that true potential?
I did. It happens a few times. It’s like the stock market know, and it’s all relative to other things. During the 2004-05 season, I came into that season and switched to Atomic Skis, and I basically didn’t lose. I lost I think two runs, including training, for like four months. I won seven of the first 10 races, and crashed in one when I was second. Another one, I made a huge mistake. From when we first started skiing in the summer down in Portillo, and then New Zealand, I didn’t lose a run. There was a month where I didn’t lose a single run against the top guys in the world. I was super fit; I was young. I didn’t have nearly the knowledge or experience or the discipline in certain areas, but my raw talent was at its peak, and the equipment was perfect. The skiing environment, the way they were prepping courses by icing everything, every course we had was bulletproof ice on every event. That was where I won slalom, giant slalom, super-G, and downhill all within seven days, which has never happened before or since then. I don’t think it will happen again. It was a specific set of circumstances, I was at my peak, and nobody skis four events like that anymore. That was definitely the peak.

And then you reached that peak again?
I got to a place later in my career where I was much more as an overall package. I would say I was a much better skier. But little things changed like equipment, the preps of the hills, the course sets all changed a lot because of the technology. They started shrinking the distance in slalom and giant slalom and making them much more turny. They changed the course preparation and that really disrupted everything. But in 2007-08, I had matured a huge amount through that time of being at my best. I had accomplished winning the overall title and won discipline titles. That was from an objective standpoint. That was the top. You beat the best in the world from start to finish of the season, won in all four events all at once. In 2007-08, I was independent. I paid for my own stuff. I was very invested in it. And when I broke away from the ski team to develop my own. That year I was definitely the best I’d ever been. I could have probably won 25 or 30 races that year. I broke my ankle in the beginning of the season, raced the whole season with a broken ankle, and still won seven races and won the overall title again that year. And my equipment wasn’t good. I was bad. I was running my own team, so I had administrative shit. I was paying people, and there were so many distractions, but I was still at a much higher level. If I hadn’t broken my ankle that year in the second race of the season, I think that would have been a really special year.

Do you feel like intuitively you needed to break away from the team for your own personal growth? No, I don’t think I did, but I was happy that it happened that way, because I’d been whining and bitching about it. And I know every young athlete has a petulant side. I’d been whining about how many things were wrong and what they were doing wrong and trying to influence them in every different way. I’d whine; I’d cajole; I’d joke, and I couldn’t get the changes that I wanted to happen to help the other athletes and leave a better legacy behind. Breaking away from the team allowed me to take responsibility for that stuff myself, I had to put my money where my mouth was. I had to actually see if what I was talking about worked and if it was effective. To break away, it was obviously intimidating and challenging. It wasn’t just on the hill, it was everything else. And it was remarkably successful, which was fulfilling and made me proud. It also allowed me to have a much stronger influence when I came back on the team in 2010 and won three medals. I came in and said, “Look, I’m a want to be a part of the team. I want to help you guys, so that when I’m gone you guys have a better system. These are the things that you need to implement. They work, and they helped, and you’re going to hit a broader spectrum of athletes and get them to their best. It was all super rewarding, and it was successful as well.

Are there things that you would like to see changed in the sport to help the next generation of skiers?
Absolutely. I think we’re at such a disadvantage in the US. K2 doesn’t make race skis anymore, so every single company is European based. The French guys generally get French skis, and they get priority. The Austrian guys get Austrian skis, and they get priority. Even if they’re from different countries, that European base works against the Americans. To have an American company like Bomber Ski, even though we build our skis in Italy, we’re an American based company. And I think with the innovations we’re going to be able to create and the passion we will bring to it, it will make a difference. When you’re racing World Cup and you’re going to hurl yourself out of the start gate and take that risk, and have your raw self exposed to the world, you need that passion. The rest of these companies are looking at it from a profit standpoint, and they sterilize the sport to some degree. I think we would bring back that kind of raw passion to it and be able to support the athletes in a way where their best ability is augmented by what the philosophy of the company is.

So what’s your day to day life now?
Kids mostly. I have four kids. They are seven weeks, three, five and 10 years old. So it’s pretty much school, sports, babysitting, diapers, feeding, napping. And then I fit my five or six different business pursuits into the five percent of my day that I’m not doing things with my kids and wife.

As a dad, do you see them doing things and have had that same kind of fearless streak that you have?
I don’t know that I was fearless. I think I had a pretty healthy respect for danger, because I was so independent. I really had to figure out risk management at a early age. I try to parent my kids that way. I try to steer them away from danger to keep them safe. But I let them figure it out for themselves a lot too, because I’m not there all the time, and I need them to know how to manage themselves and not kill themselves or break themselves too badly. With three boys, you definitely see them do stuff all the time that you’re just like, that’s not a good idea, but I’m going to let you do it and figure it out for yourself.

I’ve really admired your internal compass in terms of what you’ve achieved. A lot of athletes really struggle with that when they retire. It seems like you feel as though your legacy may still be ahead of you in terms of what you can accomplish in skiing.
Legacy is a tough term. I like to call it a body of work, and certainly my body of work is not done. I think that was what was so confusing to people when I was racing, as I viewed it all as a body of work. I viewed it as my life. It wasn’t just results. It wasn’t just skiing. It wasn’t just partying. It wasn’t just relationships. It was everything, and I was looking at it as a big picture, not one individual thing, and I think I got criticized for that a lot. Now in hindsight, not that it really does anything for me, but I’ve gotten a lot of letters and had conversations with people who are like, “I was wrong with the way I was approaching what you were doing. I can see now after looking back on it that you had a really unique belief system and a unique approach. I think you should be proud of what you did and that you were able to navigate that whole process and not come out the other end damaged.” As you said, a lot of athletes struggle with that.

Do you feel that your public persona is now more aligned with who you really are?
Probably. I think I’ve also change. You change and mature over time. Your priorities change. I did lots of things that were stupid (laughs), but they were authentic at that time. They were what I wanted to do at that time, It also helps that I have all these tools now. I’m in business outside of the sport, so people can see that I have that side. I have kids, and I’m a father and a husband and that is something that fits into people’s minds. They can see that I invest a lot of energy and time in that, and I try to be my best at it. There are more things that people can relate to and connect with. But I’m a lot more mature than I was 15 or 20 years ago.

 

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