Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bode Miller: Orpheus

Before the Winter Olympics in Torino the New York Times featured Bode Miller as the cover story for their new sports magazine, Play. They led their story as we had in our film, Flying Downhill – a film which we had given them a week or two prior – with the avalanche. Bode at age thirteen is caught in a press of cascading snow and nearly suffocated in the airless mass of tumbling snow and ice at one of the East’s steepest and most extreme skiable faces: Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. Yet Bode emerges, shakes off the snow as his head pops out, climbs out of the compressed snow and skis down to his family; relief, hysteria for all. A typical day for Bode? Clearly, no, but a day nonetheless. Yet in analyzing this opening moment the writer got the myth wrong.

The myth the Times references is Icarus and Deadulus, the flier and father/inventor. Icarus dies by falling to his death after he flies too close to the sun with his dad’s waxen, delicate wings. So this story goes: learn from Icarus, stay away form the sun. Be measured. And we know the results from Torino.

As if following from the lessons of this myth four years ago Bob Costas lectured Bode and America of the virtue of flying right. On the cover of countless magazines? You best deliver, son. And without proper attitude and altitude your sentence is media death. “You don’t care about us, we don’t care about you.” We don’t care = media death.

But the myth was wrong. Bode was never trying to ski into the sun in a singular flash of brilliance. This was in spite of the braggardly magazine covers and provocative Nike commercials of Bode SIPPING TEA (in a commercial! Ahhhhh, the arrogance!!). Yes, he was (and IS) trying to find the very edge between carve and crash, but he is always trying to find that edge and learn from the phenomena that experience affords. This PROCESS is absolutely dynamic and alive. It is the very essence of human existence. It’s what babies and kids do all the time. It’s spinning until you fall down. It’s diving through deep snow to find an amazing way down a steep pitch. It is learning from life. And, in Bode’s case, it’s a profound mental ability to risk failure to find success. The corresponding myth is not Icarus but Orpheus.

In his myth Orpheus must venture to the underworld – land of darkness – to return again with his life’s love and passion, Eurydice. There are a couple hitches (hitches make for good stories). He cannot look at Eury on his return. But he’s human, tempted by a nagging question. Is SHE the one? And he looks. And that leads to next hitch, by looking…

he must do it again and again, every season he must prove his mettle (and earn any medal). Being human means never being done. It ain’t over till its over. And even then, maybe, just maybe, we can try, try again. That’s what the myth of Orpheus is about: an eternal struggle between life force and failure.

Which brings us to Whistler. And yesterday’s GS. In spite of not getting an objective (automatic because of the rules) starting spot in the GS US Ski Team admin gave Bode such a spot (would have been stupid not to). And it gives us a chance to see Bode’s human effort. And, as in Torino, he was giving it his full measure of effort. And maybe trying TOO hard. He was fast at the top, but couldn’t keep the speed inside the gates. He really is trying to get to the bottom of the run with an extraordinary performance. Yes, he’s trying to create the absolute fastest turn and the fastest way down the mountain, but he is also trying to make it through ALL the gates. He’s not trying to fail. And he does care about results – I think sometimes more than he knows or can admit. But he’s willing to sacrifice mediocrity for brilliant failure. The problem is that brilliant failure often looks like mediocrity in a ski race. That is, unless it is part of a frightening crash. If the goal is ONLY to win, and not to perform in an extraordinary way, then anything but winning is mediocrity. Can we look a tad deeper. Can we also look at our own substantial disappointment. In case you missed it, Bode lost the race – skied off in the first run of the GS at Whitsler. Bummer.

That’s another point of Orpheus. He’s not entirely alone in his journey. While he is the only one taking the steps to the underworld there are others along the way. And his journey is connected to another, to Eurydice. And he’s got these judges looking over his shoulder making sure that he doesn’t look at her (and making sure he gets through all the gates). And WE are looking on at every moment wondering how he’ll do. In 2006 Bode’s response to the enormous pressure brought to bear on him was to say “It’s your expectations, not mine.” I was shocked, while not surprised how self-centered he came off in Torino. Because though he couldn’t let “us” in he wasn’t alone. For better and worse. Yet he retreated to a stoic public isolation which led to a storm of sentences of media death. It was a trap. Manufacturers of “The Hades Game” design it that way. Win or die.

But simple truth, Bode did not excel in Torino. He made it out with Eurydice, but they took separate vacations after the games. It was not a happy time. And it was not success. It was simply survival.

Now there’s Orpheus, 2010 style. It was helped by the newest US Ski Team member, coach of the Combined team, Mike Kenney. Let it further be said that Mike is Bode’s uncle and, as we said in our film, “The closest thing to a mentor that an independent thinker like Bode could ever have.” Mike also arrived at Whistler and look at the results: Bode’s gold was joined with Ted Ligety’s 5th and FASTEST slalom time, followed by Will Bradenburg and his 10th place finish and second fastest slalom. Followed by Andrew Weibrecht’s 11th place finish punctuated by his heroic fall over the finish line as he dove through the last gates of the slalom.

You see in our world Eurydice is the ski race. In my case Eurydice is a movie about a ski racer. In his wonderful essay, The Gaze of Orpheus, Maurice Blanchot, talks of how the artist (or inventor or ski racer) needs to unify two opposing forces. One is the inspiration of the moment. The other is the need for completion and result.

In our film Mike Kenney responded to my question of the notion of time and how it is fundamentally connected to ski racing. Time is the objective judge of results. Mike commented on how the Greeks (those fun folks who told us of Orpheus) had two notions of time. One is chronos and it is the ticking of the clock. It is, in Mike’s words, how’s my technique, how are my edges, where’s my body in space. The other sense of time is kairos – time that jumps out of time. “Ah, what a time that was!” It is inspiration, intuition, creation. It is time that transcends the second or minute or hour or day that contains it. Bode’s always been long on inspiration, but technique and a mastery of chronos and the discipline of time has been an ongoing training exercise. “If Bode can master these two notions of time then he could be a great ski racer.” That’s the setup for the race on Saturday.

One of the aspects of the races we’ve seen at Whistler that Todd Brooker commented on is how much more controlled Bode has appeared. Another aspect of these games, and Bode has spoken of this, is how Bode has raced with emotion. He saw himself as emotionally distant in Torino, but now sees he is racing with a motive. Yet with that emotion has come a mastery of technique. And when it happened it was an absolutely beautiful and inspired performance.

And on Saturday at the slalom it begins again. As great as Bode Miller was on Sunday in the Combined it is a new day. And, like it or not, we will be there with him.

Bode has shown his true character already. He showed up in Whistler and he has thrown himself at something worthy and monumental. It is the deep quest to perform in a way that startles, that unifies kairos and chronos, technique and inspiration, preparation and momentary brilliance. His is a great American success story, made poingnant and significant by the struggle that has come before, a connection forged with all of us, his struggle inspiring us in ours.

That journey continues.

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