Two of a kind (cont.)
Posted: Friday March 14, 2008 6:18PM; Updated: Sunday March 16, 2008 12:58PM
Twice Kildow finished fourth in Bormio in '05, while teammate, and longtime rival, Julia Mancuso won two medals. A year later Kildow gained immeasurable props when she bounced back from a terrible fall in downhill training to compete in three races, but again it was Mancuso who won a goal medal in the giant slalom on the last day of the Games.
In American sports culture, success is demanded quickly, especially of those with skill and stature. Kildow has both. If you like football metaphors, she is a 6-4, 220-pound wideout with great hands and 4.4 speed. Back to skiing: She is fast, and with the great racer's gift for picking a swift line. But she needed time to develop her race. She won seven times this year, and with 11 career downhill victories, has surpassed her friend and mentor, Picabo Street.
Vonn is still very young, but she performs in a challenging and destructive arena. She has already had multiple surgeries. It is audacious to assume that she will win several more overall titles. Yet it would also be foolish to assume that she will not. And the Olympic Games loom, now less than two years away.
Miller knows all about the Olympic Games. In 2002, he burst fresh-faced onto the U.S. sports scene with two silver medals in Salt Lake City, one of them after surviving a near crash in the downhill portion of the combined that remains the most breathtaking saves many ski observers have ever seen. His New Hampshire-backwoods-hippie story was fresh then, and his iconoclastic nature was a cool hook.
By 2006, his quirkiness had been turned against him when he failed to win a medal at the Olympic Games in Turin after winning the World Cup overall title in 2005, his fourth consecutive year in the top 5. There were several ways to look at Turin: 1) Miller tried hard, but just fell short while going for it. 2) Miller partied his eyeballs out and gave himself no chance to win medals. 3) Miller skied the entire season slightly short of top fitness, for many reasons (injuries, boredom, laziness, pique), and couldn't rescue his season in two weeks. I go with No. 3.
A year later, the U.S. Ski Team instituted "Bode Rules" for personal conduct and behavior, and Miller left the team to start his own operation. This can be viewed by some -- and it was -- as Miller sitting in a corner and holding his breath, but it was also an expensive gamble that could have left Miller with nothing but a fizzling legacy and the memory of what could have been. Instead, at age 30, Miller had his best year since '05 and possibly his best, period. He hired former national team speed guru John (Johno) McBride, and Miller's uncle, respected coach Mike Kenney, among others, to work on his team. Another list: This could have gone two ways. 1) Absent supervision and rules that he always claimed to hate, Miller could have drank his career down the tubes, or 2) He could have trained and skied in such a way that honors his natural talent and those he hired. He seems to have chosen No. 2.
He finished the year with 31 career World Cup wins -- more than any U.S. racer in history. There is little doubt that Miller is the most talented ski racer of his generation, possibly the most gifted in the history of the sport. His vision, strength and flexibility are unparalleled. Like Vonn, he has been repeatedly injured. Unlike Vonn, he is much nearer the end of his career than the beginning. And also like Vonn, he will be judged largely by his Olympic performance, whether it be in the past or the future, although he has not committed to ski in Vancouver, citing the usual dislike for America's fixation on the Games. (Also, according to a story written by Chris Clarey in Sunday's New York Times, at least three members of Miller's person team -- McBride, Kenney and technican Robbie Kristan -- will not be returning next winter).
It would be sweet to see Miller find a way to make peace with the Olympics, go to Vancouver and win three or four medals. If he doesn't, he will never erase the image of '06. And he probably doesn't care. That won't change the obvious. There has never been a better American ski racer.
2 of 2