American Skiers Excel

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The world's best alpine skiers started careening down the slopes of the world's winter wonderlands late October. This week they're culminating their season in Bormio, Italy, and the top man and woman are on the verge of entering American record books. It's been 25 years since Tamara McKinney and Phil Mahre were the last Americans to win the World Cup overall titles the same year. Oh, we've enjoyed some fantastic, dynamic, fiery U.S. skiers over the years. Billy Kidd, Cindy Nelson, Bill Johnson, Hilary Lindh, Tommy Moe. But it remains true after all these years of development of U.S. Skiing that greatness in the slalom and downhill events is still the domain of the Europeans. It's analogous to soccer or cycling. The day-to-day immersion in soccer and cycling is neither as constant nor as intense as it is in Europe. The ski culture in Europe is furious. It's full-time. The history is so deep that growing up skiing in Colorado or Utah or Vermont is a lightweight experience, comparatively.

So here come Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller, flying down the slopes in Italy today, tomorrow and Saturday, horizontal on the their edges, fearless in their attack of the mountain. Barring falls or injuries, come Saturday night they will each stand atop the coveted podium and take the honor of the season's overall World Cup Champions. The best in the world. Americans the rare elite in a European milieu.

One of Lindsey Vonn's milestones reached in this wondrous winter of hers was to pass the legendary Picabo Street's record of career downhill victories. Vonn grew up in Minnesota, was skiing by age two, and commuting soon thereafter to Colorado for expert instruction and competition. When Lindsey was ten, she saw Picabo Street medal in the 1994 Olympic Games. The next year she saw Street become the first American ever to win a season title in a speed event, the downhill. Picabo became a mentor to the young Lindsey and to this day talks to Lindsey before and after the big races. Picabo has no issues with Lindsey eclipsing her downhill record. But that's so typical Picabo. Always the free-thinker. Always the maverick. I interviewed Picabo a number of times and we got to talking about performance enhancing drugs in skiing. Her statement at the time: "You mean those girls are ruining their bodies with steroids and they're still losing to me? That must suck!" We've been missing Picabo on the world alpine skiing stage. But her protégé Lindsey Vonn is awfully entertaining to watch these days.

And it really doesn't get any more entertaining on the slopes than watching Bode Miller carve his way around the flags. Miller was the cornerstone of the US Ski team for eleven years but there was constant drama and controversy. Miller was a party boy. So much so that he chose beers over medals at the 2006 Olympic Games. He admitted to skiing "wasted" in a 60 Minutes feature. He wouldn't cooperate and show up for interviews or press conferences. He refused to stay with his team members, preferring to sleep and hang out in his traveling RV. So this season he quit the U.S. team. He still skis as an American, of course, but he's an independent and the separation seems to have done him the world of good. He doesn't receive any travel or training funds from the US team but his irreverent spirit is free and he's skiing like the wind. Even former teammates, on one hand admitting to hard feelings from being abandoned by their star, do say that they can't help but root for Miller when he comes charging down the hill. Off skis, he may be difficult, rough around the edges. On skis, he's thrilling.

It's been a superlative year for American skiing. Actually, it's been the best year in American skiing history.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Composit photo: Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller



Diana Nyad