EDWARDS, Colo. - The question came from the front row in a crowded room of kids, during an appearance Bode Miller and other U.S. skiers made at an elementary school nestled in the Rocky Mountains, not far from this weekend's World Cup events.
The little boy wanted to know: "What is your job going to be when you're done ski racing?"
When it was his turn to respond, Miller leaned forward, rubbed the scruff on his cheeks and smiled. This was one audience he knew exactly how to charm: 150 or so members of kindergarten to fourth grade at the Eagle County Charter Academy.
"I haven't decided what I want to be when I grow up," he began, eliciting some chuckles. "I think when I'm done skiing, my main job, my first job, will be a dad. I think that's probably the most important job that I can have. Hopefully I won't have to do manual labor, because I don't like that very much. I think I have plenty of time to decide if I want to have a career after skiing. But I hope my job is being a dad."
It was far more revealing than what Miller is likely to say to a group of reporters. Indeed, he didn't speak at all to media members waiting at the end of a downhill training run Wednesday at nearby Beaver Creek, where he was 47th-fastest of 85 finishers.
One is hesitant to make snap judgments about character or changes in character, especially when the subject is someone as enigmatic as Miller. But at that school, in that particular setting, on that particular day, Miller certainly seemed far more comfortable - and, dare we say it, more mature - than he did in the whirlwind of the 2006 Turin Games, when he infamously declared, "I got to party and socialize at an Olympic level."
Comfortable as can be on Tuesday, he was sincere when appropriate, and he drew laughs when appropriate, including when kiddingly challenging one student to a moonwalking contest after Miller revealed he's a Michael Jackson fan (alas, time ran out). Now the father of a 21-month-old girl, now back with the U.S. Ski Team after a two-year hiatus, Miller appears to be approaching February's Vancouver Olympics with a different mindset than he did the last Winter Games.
"I don't really have a comment on whether he's more mature now," Miller's agent, Lowell Taub, said in a telephone interview. "But he's certainly more at ease."
"Bode was not at ease in the winter of '05, and during the 2006 Olympics. He was very conflicted about what the Olympics stood for, and what his message could be, and how to get that message out to people," Taub continued. "If he feels that he is skiing for the right reasons and the right motivation, he is far more successful than if he feels he is skiing for outside forces. And I feel like in 2006, he felt like he was skiing for outside forces, and in 2010, he's skiing for the right reasons. And that makes him more at ease."
Miller missed about the final quarter of the 2008-09 World Cup season, heading out to California to spend some quality time with his daughter. He considered taking this season off entirely, in part because he wants as much time with his child as possible.
After thinking things through, Miller eventually decided not only to race on the World Cup - and, presumably, at the Olympics - but also to rejoin the U.S. Ski Team. He left the national squad in May 2007 to race independently, and won his second overall World Cup title in 2008.
Miller is, by all accounts, pleased to be back in the fold. And the team is pleased to have him back.
"He's got perspective. ... He is more mature. He's less off-the-cuff," U.S. Ski Team men's coach Sasha Rearick said. "I think now he's a little bit more focused on what's important."
Miller said Tuesday he opted to return to the American team because, "In an Olympic season, it makes no sense to have a fragmented team, anyway. It's one of the few times where you represent the country. You do in World Cup, also, but it's a very individual sport."
He likes some changes the team has made, including having a private chef while on the European circuit.
Taub said Miller "has seemed in a very good place in the 65-70 days, whatever it's been, since he announced his return. He's never once said this was the wrong decision or even complained to me about this or that or ski team rules."
In taking questions at the school, Miller regaled his rapt audience by talking about what he wants for Christmas (new socks and blueberry gum), about skiing on a hill in his backyard as a 2-year-old (he was too frightened to ride chair lifts at the mountain), and about why he was most excited when he first made the U.S. Ski Team (the cool outfits).
"I was always looking for nicer clothes when I was skiing. I always had to wear my sister's clothes most of the time, which was tough," Miller said, to laughter. "When I made the ski team, I was pretty excited I got all these free clothes that were really nice. I thought I looked a lot better on the hill."
Sitting between teammates Steven Nyman and Erik Fisher, Miller showed his playful side as they signed autographs to close the school visit. A teacher told students she had a question for them: Which of those three guys was pictured on a slope in full race gear on the photos being distributed? Miller winked at the girl standing in front of him to get her attention, then gestured toward Nyman, giving the answer away.