The throaty sound of a Ducati 996 echoed through the neighborhood high up in Starwood at Aspen. The driver straddled the seat of the sleek Italian sport bike and tightened the straps on his helmet. A few quick revs on the throttle and he’s off, exploding out of the garage like the start house in Wengen.
At 67, Andy Mill still has that swashbuckling look that helped him stand out as an Olympic downhill ski racer, network sports commentator and star of his own television series. Time has been good to the top American downhiller of the mid 1970s to early ‘80s, who used the skills he learned as a ski racer to carve out a remarkable life.
Ever focused on his line, he clicked the bright red motorcycle through the gears along Lower River Road, winding through Woody Creek and heading up towards Basalt. That instinctive sense of balance, angulation and line he learned as a ski racer comes into play as he moves his body ever so slightly, leaning into the turn with the bike quickly following naturally.
“If you go into a 70 mph left hander, you don’t turn your skis first, you tip your body,” said Mill. “Your body goes to the inside, the skis go straight. But once the skis get tipped up on edge and gain some purchase, they start cutting underneath.
“It’s the same on a motorcycle – you tip to the inside with the upper body, almost like you’re counter steering. I just love that feeling.”
The rushing wind, the subtle twists of the line, the turns, the danger – his days as one of the world’s best downhillers comes rushing back to him: Hahnenkamm, Kandahar, Lauberhorn, Ruthie’s. For a fleeting second, he’s back at Wengen, slicing through the narrow Alpweg, then with a deft touch leaning the tires on edge through the Brüggli-S and Wasserstation, quickly summoning up courage for the Hanneggschuss.
It’s early spring in Colorado. The snow-covered runs on Aspen Mountain remain pristine, but the lifts aren’t spinning. Now one of the world’s most renowned tarpon fishermen, Mill yearns to be in the Florida Keys, scanning the blue water for the roll of a fish with son Nicky. A half dozen times a day he checks his phone, but the Keys remain closed, captive to a virus that’s swept the planet.
Born in Fort Collins, Colo. in 1953, Mill moved to Laramie, Wyo. as a young boy where his father, Dick, managed a lumber yard. They were an active outdoors family. He was introduced to skiing at the age of eight in the Medicine Bow Mountains just west of Laramie.
“I think my mom (Vera) got tired of us all just hanging out on the weekend so she kicked my dad and I out of the house,” he laughed. “We went up to Medicine Bow and saw what skiing was like and I thought, ‘hey, that’s cool!’ So we went down to the store and got skis.”
The next year, fate stepped in when his father took a job managing United Lumber in Aspen. It was there that Andy Mill became a ski racer.
“I just remember the thrill of sliding snow and the wind in my face,” he said. “Certain kids are born to play in the sand. Other kids are born to play on the monkey bars. Skiing’s a game that has that element of risk, speed, exhilaration. I gravitated to that.”
The move to Aspen took this young kid from the wind-swept Wyoming mountains and put him smack dab in the epicenter of ski racing. This was the site of the 1950 World Championships. It was the home of the fabled Roch Cup and the training home of Jimmie Heuga.
“I remember breaking my leg when I was twelve years old. I had a picture of Jimmie Heuga and Billy Kidd on my hospital wall,” he said.
It quickly became a passion for Mill. “I just I just loved skiing. I loved racing down the hill. As a skier, I couldn’t sleep at night. I was just so excited about the next day.
Growing up racing in the Aspen Ski Club, Mill progressed quickly as a junior racer. He made the U.S. Ski Team in 1971 at the age of 18.
The ‘70s were a tumultuous time for the team. More than a decade earlier, the legendary Buddy Werner from Steamboat paved the way for American downhillers. Before Mill, Mt. Bachelor’s Mike Lafferty established a strong U.S. presence in the early days of the World Cup.
Mill came along at a time when the U.S. Ski Team was struggling from business and political strife. He established a free spirit presence, with a beard and long hair tucked into a helmet sporting a painting of an American eagle – the first athlete to decorate his protective gear. The Europeans called him Wilde Hund (Wild Dog).
In 1974 he qualified for the World Championship team, finishing 28th in the downhill at St. Moritz. A year later, he was cracking into the top 10 on the biggest courses on the World Cup tour, including a stunning fifth in the pre-Olympic downhill at Patscherkofel outside Innsbruck. He had established himself as the top American downhiller, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1981.
But Mills’ time on the White Circus was punctuated by injuries – about a dozen surgeries, as he recalls.
“He was always a very good skier, though he made mistakes,” said Hank Tauber, who was alpine director in the mid-to-late ‘70s. “But he had a lot of courage.”
Tauber recalls being at the start with him before the Olympic downhill in 1976. Mill was among the favorites on the wings of his fifth place pre-Olympic finish a year earlier. But he had severely bruised his right ankle in a training crash a few days earlier. Just 24 hours before the race, he couldn’t even get into a boot. But this was the Olympics. On race day, Mill sat next to the starting gate, his right foot buried in snow to numb the pain.
As his start time neared, he gingerly slipped his frozen foot into his ski boot. Then he went out and skied to the best U.S. downhill finish since Bill Beck in 1952, coming in sixth behind the crazy wild ride of gold medalist Franz Klammer.
It wasn’t a medal, but it captivated the interest of American fans. The venerable Sports Illustrated writer William Oscar Johnson called Mill ‘… a friendly young man from Aspen, (who) finished a remarkable sixth despite the fact that he was racing on a right leg so badly bruised that he had been unable to stand without pain the day before.’
“We all have in the back of our minds of winning the Super Bowl in the particular sport that we’re pursuing,” said Mill. “But we don’t think about it very often. We just go out and do our daily chores, building that wall one brick at a time. And eventually, if you’re lucky enough, you do win that Super Bowl or participate in that event.
“I’ve looked back periodically at my ski career,” he reflected. “To me, well, it’s just that I’m so upset because I got distracted in the middle. But my Super Bowl was marching in the 1976 Olympics opening ceremony and finishing well.”
A dozen years later, the then U.S. Olympic Committee recognized Mill for his courage with the Olympic Spirit Award. But as he reflects back, Mill is philosophical about what he accomplished and what he took away from his ski racing career.
“My greatest success was not necessarily the Olympics in ‘76,” he said. “I didn’t win much. I won the national championships (1976) and the Roch Cup downhill (1972) before it became a World Cup. But in my last year as a ski racer, I finally figured out HOW to win, even though I didn’t actually win. And that, to me, kind of saved my whole career and set me up for my future.”
After the 1980 Olympics, Mill faced an ultimatum from new Alpine Director Bill Marolt. He needed to come back from the Lake Louise downhill in the first seed or he would lose his spot to a younger racer. He didn’t do it. Thinking his career was over, he went to Heavenly Valley for a U.S. Championship and Can-Am (NorAm) downhill. He lost to Canada’s Dave Irwin in the first race, but pulled out a stunning win in the second with a margin so large he beat the point spread and landed back in the first seed.
“So I got rededicated,” said Mill. “I thought, ‘you know what? I’ve got a second chance here. I just won this race. I’m back in the first seed in the world.’”
At the same time, Mill started to work with the U.S. Ski Team’s new coach Andreas Rauch from Austria. In Mill’s final year on the team, Rauch impacted both his technique and his mental attitude. “With that new chance, I just wrapped my confidence around Andreas.”
Marolt had hired the Austrian to bring fresh knowledge and insight. “What was great about it was the guys listened to him,” said Marolt.
“Andreas taught me how to tip a ski over with hip angulation instead of knee angulation,” recalled Mill. “I went to Europe and trained with the Austrians. I won all the time trials. I rededicated myself to my physicality. I switched back to Rossignol skis and Lange boots.”
Going into the 1980-81 season, Mill was confident. “For the first time in my career, I really felt like I was going to win – right from the first race,” he said.
He was on the top of his game. In early December on the Saslong in Val Gardena, he scored a career best fourth – just a few tenths off the podium. In St. Moritz a week later, he dominated training runs. In the race, though, he landed hard in a compression, losing a ski and tweaking his knee. He had arthroscopic surgery and was back in January for the Lauberhorn in Wengen, skipping the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel.
During inspection he had noticed the jump coming into the finish was larger that year, making a mental note to ‘pay attention.’ With virtually no downhill training since his injury in St. Moritz a month earlier, he went to the start. He planned to test his left knee in the first right turn. If it felt good, he was going for it.
“I was so happy,” he said. “I was just skiing so well. This was the best time of my life as an athlete. I knew it was just a matter of time before I was going to win. That training run was like a race. I fired down through there and I got down to the last turns above the finish. Then I came flying into that last jump and I said to myself: ‘I am screwed.’”
Mill launched off the lip, soaring 50 meters into hay bales (there were no nets yet) and through the fence. Pain rifled through every part of his body. He had broken his neck, his back, his leg and torn most of the ligaments in his right knee.
“It was the defining point, because I had basically run out of body at that time,” he reminisced. “I still had the heart. I absolutely knew how to win at that point. I knew as an athlete, I was there. I finally got that to the pinnacle of my career.”
With his skiing career behind him, Mill thought about creative ways to make a living in the sport. Television in the 1980s was going through a metamorphosis with cable creating demand for new content. So he pieced together Ski with Andy Mill, distributing the program on cable and to ski resorts nationally who were eager for material to promote the sport.
“I tried to figure out ‘how can I do what I need to do and make money on my own’’” he said. “The whole ski thing, Olympics and broadcasting was an avenue for exposure and to keep my name out there.”
With an innovative new barter syndication business model, Mill was able to sell advertising to brands eager to reach the high-end demographic ski market. “As an athlete, you only expose yourself and your sponsors when you win. Now, I was able to showcase my sponsors every week.”
Right from the start, Ski with Andy Mill was a business success, starting a wave of similar ski-based television and film projects over the next decade. With Mill’s charm and dashing on-screen presence, sponsors came flocking. He had found a gold mine!
Now a burgeoning ski celebrity, Mill’s life took an unexpected turn at a 1987 New Year’s Eve dinner at Aspen’s Hotel Jerome. The ski racer turned broadcaster was seated next to tennis great Chris Evert. They talked skiing and the next day, Mill took her up on the mountain to learn. Six months later, they married, raising three sons, before divorcing in 2006. They remain good friends.
Mill was good at sports commentary though he didn’t love it. But for him, it was a way to build his own personal brand.
“I went from being the guy in the starting gate to the guy behind the microphone,” he said. “I still wanted to be that guy in the starting gate.”
Decades since leaving broadcast, Mill still follows the sport. He recognizes Bob Beattie for what he did in ushering in the age of ski racing broadcasting in the 1970s. But he also points to two broadcasters he really admired – Christin Cooper and Steve Porino.
“I think Steven Porino’s the best announcer I’ve ever heard,” said Mill. “And Christin Cooper is awesome. There needs to be a good blend between a play-by-play guy and a color guy. But I think in ski racing, to this day, Steve Porino is as good as it’s ever been.”
Mill was on CBS’ Olympic coverage team in 1992 from Albertville and again in 1994 at Lillehammer. On the opening weekend in Norway, he provided analysis for play-by-play announcer Tim Ryan as Tommy Moe won downhill gold, interviewing the American star in the finish.
As cable television continued to boom, a new sports network began in July, 1996: the Outdoor Life Network. With an underlying passion for fly fishing, Mill was a frequent guest on OLN outdoor shows produced by Aspen friend John Wilcox, who had worked past Olympics for ABC. Soon, he was offered his own show on the network – stepping aside from his ski show to go fishing. Over a span of seven years and 81 episodes, Sportsman’s Journal with Andy Mill became one of the most popular outdoor shows on television. It launched him into the spotlight of an outdoor sports world, which dwarfed skiing.
Sportsman’s Journal focused on people and places, taking Mill around the globe from the Caribbean to South America to the coast of Africa. He fished in the Arctic with President George H. W. Bush, who became a great personal friend.
While Mill loved doing the show, what really excited him was the opportunity to take what he had learned in ski racing and apply it to a new sport. He missed the rush that competitive skiing had once provided.
Mill’s passion for fly fishing ran deep. Just a year after moving to Aspen as a young boy, he took a clinic and immediately latched onto the sport. As a teen, he was working for a local fly fishing shop as a guide. Every chance he could, he would sneak away to slip a line in the Roaring Fork or Frying Pan Rivers near Aspen. He often took a rod and reel with him as he traveled with the U.S. Ski Team.
That passion rose up a notch on a trip to Belize in the early ‘90s. Mill was a celebrity guest on a fishing show there with John Barrett when he tied into his first tarpon. It was like dropping into the Mousefalle where your gut rises up in your chest or the anticipation you feel as you near the Camel Jumps on the Saslong at breakneck speed.
“When I saw a tarpon eat my fly for the first time I knew that my life had changed,” said Mill. “I had to be a part of this game.”
From that day forward, Mill set his mind on tarpon fishing. He connected with Harry Spear, a legendary guide, and together they fished tarpon 40 days a year in the Florida Keys.
Mill saw in tarpon fishing the opportunity he hadn’t achieved as a downhill ski racer. He knew how to extract performance from passion. He knew about setting goals. He knew how to win.
“I had a second chance at doing something I really wanted to be good at,” he said. “As a skier I used to think ‘I hope I do well.’ But my mindset as a fisherman was the polar opposite. As a fisherman, my attitude was ‘I am not going to allow myself to lose.’”
Mill became a student of every aspect of the fish. He dove into the little details that he missed in skiing. He availed himself of the mentorship of guides like Spear.
“In skiing, I was happy to make the top 10,” he said. “But as a fisherman, I knew I was catching more fish than anybody else. I knew the dynamics. I could see a fish. I learned about the fish. I knew what that fish wanted from me to catch that fish. A good fisherman can catch a lot of fish. But a great fisherman is the angler who can catch a fish that doesn’t want to be caught.”
Mill yearned for that pressure and stress he had felt as a downhill ski racer. He found that in tarpon tournaments. With guide Tim Hoover, Mill won five of six Gold Cup Tarpon Tournaments – the Hahnenkamm of tarpon fishing – from 2000 to 2005, matching the most ever victories by an angler. He took an unprecedented six grand champion titles at the Golden Fly Invitational Tarpon Tournament from 2002-2015. Over his career, he won a dozen major titles before retiring from competition.
His book, Passion for Tarpon (2010, Wild River Press), adorns the coffee tables of thousands of fishermen worldwide.
As he reflects on life, Mill is quick to recognize his Cinderella story. “I’ve been with six presidents and played golf with three of them. I was at Camp David with President Bush when Kuwait was invaded and fished with him in the Arctic.”
Today, life is about having fun for Andy Mill. Gone are the days of pre-dawn wakeup calls in Tyrolean mountain lodges, second takes on a TV standup or the intense pressure of a tarpon tournament on the final day. He still splits time between Aspen and Boca Ratan, but doesn’t spend much time on the ski slopes. He retains a strong passion for youth, as a benefactor to the Aspen Valley Ski Club.
As he leans his Ducati into another turn, his mind races back to the lessons he learned as a ski racer that were so formative in his life.
“What always impressed me with Andy was that he was always all out – even when he was hurt,” said Marolt. “He never let anything get in the way of giving it his best effort. He carved out his own path in life. He looked ahead to make things happen rather than bemoaning the way it could have been. Successful people put the past in their rear view mirror and look ahead.”
As summer nears, Mill is finally back in the Keys. Standing at the stern of his 16-foot boat, he poles quietly amidst the dawn light in a calm basin on the Atlantic Ocean side of a narrows in the Keys. Son Nicky is on the bow, casting a black and purple fly with his right hand, slipping the fly line with his left.
They spot a tarpon 50 feet out in 10 feet of water. Nicky leads the fish by 20 feet, casting the fly with perfection against the heavy, humid saltwater air – transferring the energy of the rod to the fly line which floats in a loop above the pristine water.
Suddenly the tarpon rolls and breaks the water in a silvery flash. The 100-pound fish grabs the fly and the line goes taut. Nicky sets the hook.
“When you get a big tarpon on, it’s like setting a hook into a bolt of lightning,” says Mill, who motored the boat to stay close to the giant fish.
“If you let the fish get too far away, there’s too much stretch in the line,” said Mill. Nicky fights the beast, putting in play the subtle tactics he learned from his father. He keeps the line taut, giving the giant fish just enough wiggle room to tire itself out before he reeled while his father puts on gloves to help haul it into the boat after a 20-minute fight.
The dawn light was just striking the lagoon shoreline, glinting off the crystal clear aquamarine water. It was a peaceful time on the water for father and son.
It’s a good life for the old ski racer from Wyoming.