Bode Miller is preparing to return next week after a seven-month hiatus from skiing, and nobody is quite sure what to expect.
"His potential is always great. He's an amazing talent, and an even stronger force if he gets his head in the right place," said Miller's former personal coach John McBride, one of the few figures in the sport ever to gain his full respect.
Miller cut last season short when he failed to win a medal at the world championships in Val d'Isere, France. He pondered retirement or taking a year off as he spent time with his 2-year-old daughter, then decided in September to make a full-fledged return and rejoined the U.S. Ski Team after competing independently for two seasons.
Miller skipped the season opener in Soelden, Austria, two weeks ago, but is planning to ski the slalom race in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 15.
"Conditioning-wise, he's going to have to bust his (butt) to catch up. But I wouldn't be at all surprised to see at maybe the end of December or in January he starts showing his form," said McBride, who has taken a job with the Canadian team this season.
"If he can do it earlier, that's a real tribute to him, having not trained through the summer months. It would surprise me if he was right there competitive on the podium early on, but it's by all means possible."
Val d'Isere marked the third consecutive major championship in which Miller failed to make the podium. Having injured his ankle early last season, Miller also failed to win a race for the first time in nearly 10 years.
"Based on how he finished up last season, he really needed a break," said Phil McNichol, the former U.S. head coach who often clashed with the rebellious skier. "Hopefully this time away is going to translate into some positive results and performances and state of mind and all of those things that are required to perform at your best."
McBride and McNichol suggested that at 32, Miller would be wise to focus on his best events instead of skiing every race. However, Miller recently said he's planning a full schedule, and current U.S. coach Sasha Rearick indicated he's had a hard time holding the racer back.
Miller surprised Rearick with a phone call in September, requesting a meeting to discuss the possibility of rejoining the team.
In the past, Miller's wish to sleep in his personal motor home at races was a divisive issue with the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association. Now with new staff in charge -- Rearick replaced McNichol and Luke Bodensteiner has taken over temporarily for departed Alpine director Jesse Hunt -- the organization has a new stance.
"He's changed and we've changed as an association," said Bodensteiner, who competed in two Olympics as a cross country skier. "Team is something we put a high value on, but over the years we've learned that within that team we have individuals and we have to manage athletes individually. They have different needs and need different programs."
According to Miller, the meeting in September covered "all the issues."
"It was one of those rare times where everyone came out happy," Miller said in Soelden. "They didn't say anything that I didn't like and I didn't say anything that they didn't like, so I think it was really a unique situation. That's what the impetus for coming back was."
The team is even considering hiring its own cook, something Miller has long advocated.
"He's been talking about how food has been a problem for years and then after us going out and testing it we realized, 'Hey, there's something to be gained here,"' Rearick said. "So we're working on it."
The squad took a chef to training camp in New Zealand in August, and the same cook will prepare the team's food at the Vancouver Olympics in February. The next step is setting up a traveling kitchen in a motor home for the World Cup circuit in Europe.
"We stay in great hotels, and it's four-star cooking. It's awesome food, it tastes great, but it's not necessarily the stuff we need to be eating to perform on a day-to-day basis," Rearick said. "So if we can control that, that's kind of the next level of detail."
With his late start, Miller could hit peak form for Vancouver, and it appears he's intent on entering the Olympics -- having finally gotten over the debacle in Turin three years ago, when he made more headlines for his late-night partying than his skiing.
"He's capable of anything, it's whether he wraps his head around the Olympics," McBride said. "He obviously had a crummy media experience in (Turin) and whether he brought that upon himself is debatable. He kind of made his own bed there, and made himself a pretty good target for the media.
"I would imagine that if he's competing in the Olympic Games, he keeps his profile a little quieter."
With the spotlight on two-time defending overall World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn, Miller could end up with less attention -- although he won't be able to escape it completely.
"He's going to be the dirty stepchild and Lindsey is going to be the shining knight, and the press is probably going to want to write equally about both of those," McNichol said. "He just needs to continue with what he's done and try to stay out of the press and keep quiet and focus on his ski racing and then talk about it afterwards."