February 28, 2005 12:00 PM

Bode Miller was barely out of baby booties—and into ski boots—when his mother took him out for his first run. “He never had lessons or anything, I just held him between my legs,” says Jo Miller, who one day felt her 3-year-old son pulling away from her. “When he was really little he told me to let him go,” she says. “He was always like that, you couldn’t hold him. I’d let him go and he would go flying and then he’d crash. He loved it.”

Still does. Miller, 27, rocked the ski world this winter by winning six World Cup races and two gold medals at the World Championships, including, on Feb. 5, the first gold ever won by an American in the downhill, a race traditionally dominated by Europeans. Yet it’s not just that he’s winning, it’s how he’s winning. So fearless his pals used to call him Crash Test Dummy, Miller is revolutionizing his sport with a breathlessly daring style of racing that produces blistering speeds. “Bode is doing for skiing what Tiger Woods did for golf,” says Greg Ditrinco, executive editor of Ski magazine. “He is winning and making it look really easy, and he is doing stuff physically other skiers can’t do.”

In one recent race Miller lost a ski early on but kept hurtling down the mountain on one leg (“the legend grows,” one rival remarked). His mountain mastery has made the 6-ft., 210-lb. Miller rock-star famous in Europe, where fans mob him at every event and launch Web sites like bodelicious.com. Yet his mystique also derives from his slacker persona—Miller practices far less than other top skiers, has a reputation for partying hard and sleeps separately from teammates in an RV strewn with Playstation games and piloted by a boyhood pal, Jake Serino. “Bode is different from everybody else,” says U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Phil McNichol, who bristles at his star’s lack of discipline (he skips meetings and tends to disregard pre-race routines) but accepts that Miller’s fierce individualism is part of his genius. “In many ways he is still a child. He is pure in his motives and character. He’s the most complex guy to handle, but he’s just so damn good.”

Still, his antics are raising some eyebrows: One local Italian sports daily recently marveled at his appetite for fun (“Beer, grappa, vodka—the American drank everything”). Miller says his critics are missing the point: Win or wipe out, he’s having a blast. “You have to define success, and for me it’s being happy,” he says. “I’ve grown up never caring what somebody else thinks.” Bode, his two sisters, Kyla and Genesis Wren, and brother Chelone were raised on 500 forested acres in tiny Easton, N.H., at the foot of the White Mountains. Their modest home was an experiment in countercultural living: No electricity, no running water and no bathroom—they had to hike through snow to the outhouse. “Our kids grew up like billy goats,” says Jo Miller, 55, who owns an antiques business (Miller’s father, Woody, was divorced from Jo when Miller was 13 but still runs a tennis academy on the property). Homeschooled until the third grade, Bode was a high school tennis champ but opted to focus on skiing. In 2002 he won two silver medals at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

Despite his ascension to the top of his sport, Miller still behaves like Beavis in a fleece. After one recent meet in Kitzbühel, Austria, he slipped behind the bar at the rowdy Londoners Pub and flirted with a few health-code violations. “I took off my shirt right away ’cause otherwise it gets real nasty and ripped off,” says Miller, who at one point even tossed a drink at a pal. “She dodged out of the way, and it hit somebody else. It was pretty funny.” This summer Miller plans to blow off training camp to spend time in Easton, where he and two roommates share a cluttered house—”he’s a total loser when it comes to home skills,” says his mom—only yards from where he grew up. (Miller, who makes around $3 million a year from endorsements, also has a home in Austria and is building a place in Bretton Woods, N.H.) When he’s not dirt biking, snowmobiling or hot-tubbing with his buddies, Miller dates Austrian business student Claudia Toth, 23, though it’s clear he’s not the world’s most attentive boyfriend. “I’m not a sounding-board kind of guy,” he admits. “I don’t have time to sift through all that.”

His coach worries Miller’s enigmatic ways mask an inner turmoil. “I think he wrestles a lot of demons,” says McNichol. “He can’t hold food down. He can’t sleep. He’s a bag of nerves.” Miller says he sleeps just fine but admits the burdens of fame can sometimes drive him crazy. “It would be super if someone else took over the spotlight,” he says. “But I don’t see that happening.”

By Alex Tresniowski. Pete Norman in Kitzbühel and Hope Hamashige in New York City

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