He took on the world's best and beat them all in a competition that carried across the high peaks of Europe and seemed to last forever. Only one U.S. athlete had won the esteemed title before him, and he persevered through dramatic changes in climate while fighting back exhaustion and looming physical breakdown. Some refused to acknowledge his greatness because it came packaged with an indefatigable self-assurance, but there is no arguing with the scoreboard. Or the clock. He is the very best where Americans have seldom triumphed, and for that, he deserves to be named SI's Sportsman of the Year.
No, not that American. This American: Alpine skier Bode Miller. Four months before Lance Armstrong won his seventh consecutive Tour de France, Miller became the first U.S. skier in 22 years to win the World Cup overall title, emblematic of the best all-around skier on the planet. Miller vaulted into the World Cup lead in November by winning the first three races of the season and never relinquished the lead, holding off Benni Raich of the deep and talented Austrian team on the last weekend of the season.
That achievement alone puts Miller on a short list for Sportsman. Only Phil Mahre, who won the overall title three consecutive times (1981-83), had previously won the overall in U.S. colors. While the U.S. Ski Team is a lavishly funded and assiduously organized operation, its athletes compete virtually in a season-long road trip; only six of 39 men's races take place in North America and only four of those are in the United States. It is an upset whenever an American wins.
For Miller, 28, winning the overall capped a four-year rise to the top of the sport. In 2002, his breakthrough year, he won two Olympic silver medals and a year later expanded his repertoire to include not only the "technical'' events (slalom and giant slalom), but also the breakneck downhill and giant slalom. Last year he became only the second man in history to win World Cup races in all four major disciplines in a single season -- and he then won both the downhill and Super-G at the World Championships. He will be among the favorites in all five medal events at the Winter Olympic Games in February.
Yet statistics don't capture the essence of Bode. Inside the ski world, he is regarded as a freakish talent who needed only maturity and experience to dominate. To outsiders he is known as the guy who was raised in a backwoods New Hampshire home by his hippie parents, slogging through snow to use the outhouse.
In fact, he is all of this and much more.
Miller embraces competition and victory (and all the spoils), but scarcely as much as he enjoys the rush of skiing well. Last year at the worlds in Bormio, Italy, Miller finished what would turn out to be the gold medal run in Super-G, yet was clearly disappointed in the imperfection of his race. Better to ski well and lose than to ski poorly and win. Similarly, he has started every World Cup race for the last three seasons, a Ripken-esque streak that reached 115 consecutive races when Miller pushed out of the start house at the 2005-06 season opener on a glacier above Soelden, Austria. The next-longest streak is nearly 100 races shorter, putting Miller far into a class by himself. The U.S. coaches have long encouraged Miller to take an occasional rest, but he refuses. ``It's a source of pride for me,'' he said last month.
A gifted athlete who shows up for work every day and judges his performance by his own exacting standards, yet still stands at the top of the world? Sounds like a sportsman to me.