A historic year for US skiing began with a wedding and a divorce.
Six months ago, few expected two Americans to be crowned the best alpine skiers this weekend, winning both the women's and men's World Cup overall title for the first time since 1983.
Lindsey Kildow's inability to find the brakes had made her as familiar with crash netting as the podium – until she wed ex-racer Thomas Vonn, who, she says, taught her that "you can't ski at 110 percent all the time."
Renegade Olympic medalist Bode Miller, meanwhile, veered into unknown territory – again – when he split with the US ski team after years of disputes.
Since then, though, Mr. Miller and Ms. Vonn have skied better than anyone on the planet, shocking a sport that sometimes seems to be little more than a European supper club in crash helmets. Miller is only the second non-European man to win the World Cup overall title since it was established in 1967; Vonn is the third woman.
It offers a measure of vindication to Miller – not that he is likely to care – after he emerged tarred, feathered, and medal-less from the 2006 Olympic Games to ski an indifferent 2007 season. For Vonn, still on the upward arc of her career, it provides a glimmer of what could lie ahead.
Winning an Olympic gold "is my No. 1 goal," said Vonn in a conference call after the final event of the World Cup season in Bormio, Italy. "But to be honest, the overall title is much more difficult because you have to be consistent."
Indeed, the overall World Cup is contested over a series of races that run from before Halloween and nearly to Easter. Points are awarded to the top 30 finishers in five disciplines – downhill, Super G, giant slalom, slalom, and combined – with the first three skiers taking 100, 80, and 60 points, respectively.
World Cup history bears that out. Only two other Americans have ever won the World Cup overall title, and they both did it in the same year. In 1983, Tamara McKinney became the first American woman to win, while Phil Mahre captured his third – and last – consecutive title. The only other non-European to win was Canadian Nancy Greene in 1967 and '68.
Miller rebounds from '06 Olympics
Miller had joined that group in 2005, when he won his first overall title. It had seemed to be perfect timing, setting up Miller as one of America's gold-medal locks for the Turin Olympics a year later. Instead, he came away with one fifth place, three DNFs (did not finish), and a reputation for pigheadedly throwing away his talent and duty to country with late-night carousing.
But this season offers a fuller measure of Miller, who also won the combined World Cup title. His goal is to ski faster than everyone else on the hill that day. Whether it is the Olympics or the Swiss slopes at Adelboden is largely immaterial. "It's not like there are different racers there," says Cameron Shaw-Doran, one of Miller's close friends.
This year he went some way to prove his frequent assertion, which he made recently in a webchat for TIME magazine: "When I'm at speed and not making mistakes, I'm much, much faster than the rest of the world right now."
The product of a childhood in the New Hampshire mountains, living in a house with no electricity and given the liberty to wander off into the woods unsupervised, Miller has brought that independent spirit to his sport.
He is in many ways a pioneer – the first to begin using shaped skis for racing, which are now ubiquitous on the circuit, and someone who designed his own off-season workout programs. Shaw-Doran, who uses a wheelchair, says Miller pushes him on uphill sprints "because he says it works on his core in a way that pushing a wheelbarrow doesn't."
His insistence on living in an RV during the season, while other US skiers were required to stay in a hotel – hastened his split with the US team.
The fact that he won the World Cup overall title with a team entirely of his creating "says a lot for him," says Shaw-Doran.
Vonn's win a surprise – and dream
Even in off years, such as last season, Miller was still among the circuit's top skiers – winning the individual giant slalom title and finishing fourth overall. Vonn's rise, however, came as a surprise.
Before this year, the image of Vonn that endured is one of her crumpled at the bottom of the downhill run at the 2006 Olympics after a fall that required her to be airlifted to Turin hospital. She rebounded to race in four of five races.
She was fast and gutsy, but not always smart. If she made even the smallest mistake high on the course, she says, she would take bigger and bigger risks farther down the slope, compounding each error. The difference this year, she says, is a little more experience, and a husband who has convinced her to take a more calculated approach.
"I have been smarter about knowing when I can risk a lot," she said in the teleconference.
Now, she skis at 90 percent, she says – and that appears to be plenty good enough. Though she did well in other disciplines, she dominated the downhill. Of nine races this season, she won five, finished second in two, and was never out of the top five.
And that is as it should be, she says. Winning the downhill title was her goal this year. After all, she only ever wanted to be the next Picabo Street – America's queen of speed and, before now, the only American ever to win a World Cup downhill title. With the overall title, too, however, Vonn has gone one better.
And even the Europeans are applauding. McKinney was with Austrian legend Franz Klammer when she saw Vonn race at St. Moritz this year. On the teleconference, she recalled him saying: "Lindsey is skiing fantastic. She's the best skier this year."
Now, Vonn and Miller have World Cup crystal globes to prove it.