The grades are in
Mancuso, Miller earn high marks for U.S. Ski Team
Posted: Friday March 16, 2007 6:11PM; Updated: Friday March 16, 2007 8:44PM
During one December stretch, the U.S. Ski Team scored an unprecedented nine (top-three) podium finishes in seven races over a six-day period. It was a stunning display of high-level racing by five skiers, and coming one year after a disappointing performance at the Turin Olympic Games, lent some credibility to the team's marketing slogan (or "goal," depending on who you ask): Best In the World.
The World Cup campaign ends this weekend in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, slamming the door on a funky season that has suffered the vagaries of weather more than most. Rain, fog, melting snow, lack of snow. (If I call this Global Warming, I'll be accused of politicizing a sports column. I'll just say that when boulders the size of hockey rinks are popping out of glaciers, where they never had been seen before, something is going on).
For the U.S. team, it was a feast-or-famine season highlighted by the December blitz and with three medals from Lindsey Kildow (two) and Julia Mancuso (one) at the world championships in February. Grading the team's Big Five:
Bode Miller: After meeting with Miller and watching him ski in December, I would have bet that he would return to his dominant form of 2005. Freed from the outsized Olympic expectation (and attention) that he despised and rebelled against, his left knee surgically repaired and his body generally fitter than in at least two years, I would have bet that Miller would win the World Cup overall and possibly a couple of event globes.
That hasn't happened. Not even close. It looked like a possibility early on. Miller had three World Cup wins before Christmas. On Jan. 13, he won the legendary Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen, Switzerland, crashing across the finish line in a slushy heap. That was his 25th World Cup victory, just two short of Phil Mahre's U.S. career best of 27, and it kept Miller solidly in the race for his second overall title in three years.
He hasn't had a podium finish since, and was shut out at the Worlds. (Although, in fairness, Miller got a terrible break with a foggy run in downhill, when others got clear light). He tweaked his knee again. Barring a surprise victory or podium in the giant slalom and a far more surprising podium in slalom, Miller will finish with his lowest World Cup points total since 2001, the year before he broke through on the world scene.
On the plus side, he won the Super-G globe for the second time.
Still, Miller is no longer the funky kid from New Hampshire. He will be 30 in October. It's fair to start asking if he will ever be dominant again. And it's always appropriate to ask if he wants to be dominant again. Or just walk away. His body has been through the wars. His mind has never embraced everything that goes with being a ski star (although he likes enough of the perks to dwell on retirement a good, long while before pulling the trigger).
Ted Ligety: In December, U.S. head coach Phil McNichol warned me that Ligety, 22, wasn't ready to back up his pub with performances, despite winning the men's team's only medal (and a gold one, at that, in combined) in Turin.
Ligety came into the competitive season with a hand injury and never fully got rolling. He scored two podiums (one in slalom, one in GS), and suffered through an agonizing four fourth-place finishes. After breaking though with his first World Cup win in 2006 (he won his gold medal at the Games before winning on the World Cup, a remarkable achievement), he didn't win a race in '07.
On the plus side, he finished fourth in the downhill at the World Cup finals, which could signal the next step in a four-event career. And his company -- Shred Goggles -- makes cool pastel-colored eyewear.
But in all, Ligety probably expected a much stronger year, even though it was only his second full season on the World Cup circuit.
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