Reintroducing Bode Miller
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 17 Cuba Issue. Subscribe today!
ON DEC. 6, two months before the Sochi Olympics, Bode Miller sits on a cushy leather couch with his family in the lobby of a mountainside hotel in Avon, Colo., contemplating his next move. Already today he has thrown himself 2,329 feet down the side of Beaver Creek Mountain at speeds of 80 mph during World Cup competition. He has dissected the ins and outs of his 13th-place finish in the downhill race. He's kissed his parka-wrapped, head-turning wife. And he has coaxed a smile out of his 5-year-old daughter, Dace, by asking to borrow her tiny purple mittens for his next race. Aside from these three, the lobby is dead.
While Miller waits for his technician to deliver his coat, the 36-year-old talks on his cellphone. It is in this fireplace-fueled hub of warmth where the final chapter in one of the greatest Alpine skiing careers of all time is beginning to be written. And it is nothing like Miller ever could have imagined. On the other end of the call is his attorney. They are piecing together a co-parenting plan that Miller hopes will allow him to bring his 11-month-old son to Sochi for the skier's fifth and likely final Olympic Games. The bitter custody battle with his son's mother, Sara McKenna, has dragged on for months. "It just sucks your will to live," Miller says.
Next to him is his wife, Morgan Miller. The 6'3" pro beach volleyball player is rarely far from her husband's side, and today is no different. Bode's phone is on speaker so she can listen in. The couple met in May of 2012, two weeks before he found out he would be having a baby with McKenna. And despite the promise of drama, Morgan supported Bode. "Sometimes I think to myself, I'm probably the only woman in the world who would put up with this," says Morgan.
A few feet away, Dace, whom Bode had with a third woman, anxiously waits for Dad to get off the phone.
Right now many of Miller's teammates and competitors are still up the mountain, searching for that 1/100th of a second that might lead to a future podium, hopefully in Sochi. A New Hampshire native, Miller knows this hunt all too well. For 16 years, he has built a reputation as an überathletic, win-or-crash-trying daredevil who pushes the line between safety and success. Since 1998, he has won five Olympic medals and 33 World Cup races, more than any other American male Alpine skier. In an era of specialization, he has won in all five Alpine disciplines. Yet there are those who believe he could have done even more. "He's probably the greatest underachieving ski racer in history by a long shot," says Mike Kenney, Miller's uncle and coach.
But the physical and psychological commitment to dominate skiing was never in Miller's DNA. If every minute of every day would have been dedicated to skiing, he undoubtedly would have grown to hate the sport, burned out and quit. So instead, he reaped the rewards of his worldwide celebrity in the most anti-establishment way possible. He partied. He drank. He chased women. "A rock-star life," says Lowell Taub, Miller's agent.
But the wild Bode Miller is long gone. In his place is an unabashed homebody. A man who texts his wife "I miss you" with an emoticon frown before a race. A man not afraid to cry at romantic movies. "A complete flip-flop," Taub says.
After a 15-minute call, Miller and his attorney come up with a plan. "That's a $400 phone call," he says, hanging up.
THE TWISTED STORY of Bode Miller, Sara McKenna and Morgan Miller began in early 2012, when Sochi was still far from the skier's mind. Sensing that his "ability to be a husband was finally developed," Bode says, he subscribed to a high-end matchmaking service. "Not someone to divorce within 10 years," says Bode, who at that time lived on a boat in San Diego. "[I needed] someone just as complicated and f -- d up as it gets."That's when he met McKenna, a stunningly attractive former Marine and a firefighter. Miller says that after several dates, he knew McKenna wasn't the one, but not before the relationship turned intimate. "I have no one to blame but myself," he says.
Shortly thereafter, he met Morgan, also a client of Taub's, at a pro beach volleyball tournament. Bode was drawn to the way Morgan carried herself on the court. Almost immediately, he knew she was the right woman for him.
But then came news from McKenna: She was pregnant, and he was the father. That night he told Morgan everything.
"I told him, 'I know it's scary and sad, but you've done this before,'" Morgan says. "'You're going to step up to the plate, and you're going to be fine.'"
From there, Miller did what he could to earn Morgan's trust. Bode says he offered to attend McKenna's ultrasound appointments -- but only if Morgan could come along. The couple linked their texts and emails to each other's phones, and it's still that way. "It's worth it to alleviate her stress level," he says.
Just five months after meeting, the couple married on his boat. The next month, another surprise: Morgan was also pregnant with Bode's child. Eleven weeks into the pregnancy, though, on a red-eye flight to Europe, she suffered a miscarriage. That same day, word of McKenna's pregnancy leaked in a TMZ article titled "Bode Miller Gets a Gold Medal in ... Knocking Chicks Up."
"I remember thinking the world is so damn unfair," Morgan says. "It's just cruel." In February 2013, McKenna gave birth to Samuel Bode Miller McKenna Jr. in New York and left Bode's name off the birth certificate. McKenna had moved to the East Coast seven months into her pregnancy after being accepted into a general studies program at Columbia University. The legal tug-of-war that followed became juicy fodder for the media. McKenna, through her attorney, declined to be interviewed for this story, but last year she told media outlets that Miller initially wanted nothing to do with his son. Miller, who filed for paternity in California, says that's not true.
Like any bitter custody battle, whom and what to believe is a he-said/she-said better left for legal interpretation. The only problem was that in this case, even the courts seemed confused. Three months after Samuel was born, a New York court scolded McKenna for her cross-country move, pinballing jurisdiction back to California, where a court granted Miller custody. That decision enraged women's-rights advocates, who argued that a woman should not be penalized for moving with her unborn child. In November a New York appellate court reversed the California decision, giving primary custody back to McKenna. So now Samuel -- whom the Millers call Nathaniel in a tribute to Bode's younger brother, who died of a seizure last April -- lives with his mom. But when Miller gets back from Sochi, he and McKenna will share custody for a while as part of a short-term parenting agreement.
IF THERE IS anything Bode Miller has proved again and again, it's that when he steps into the starting gate, no one knows what to expect. He might blow out and pinwheel into a fence. Or he might appear wildly out of control but somehow save it and end up with yet another must-see highlight.Eight years ago at the Turin Games, the world expected greatness, and Miller returned home empty-handed. Four years later at the Vancouver Games, the world expected nothing, and Miller responded with a gold (super-combined), silver (super-G) and bronze medal (downhill). This time around, Miller says he's lighter and faster on his skis after taking the 2012 season off following microfracture surgery on his left knee. But no one over the age of 34 has ever medaled in a men's Alpine event. And Miller's results this World Cup season have been inconsistent at best -- from a second-place finish in the giant slalom in Beaver Creek to a series of DNFs across Europe. Yet ask anyone in the Olympic field and they'll tell you: Only a fool overlooks Bode Miller.
A few days after Miller's phone call with his attorney, he and Morgan met with McKenna and her attorneys. There they agreed that Miller would be allowed to bring his son to Sochi.
But then plans changed again, just weeks before Sochi. More drama -- including a squabble over adding Miller's name to the birth certificate and amending the name Nathaniel to his documents -- made obtaining a Russian visa in time impossible.
For Miller, any vision he had of flying down the hill in his final Olympic run and then celebrating with his family is now gone. Instead, the end of the run will mark a stark return to reality, where the next move is his.