Vonn, Miller deliver peak performances

Times Staff Writer

Here's something you don't see every decade: Two American skiers have the vaunted Austrians chasing them in the race for the most prestigious prizes in the alpine industry -- the World Cup overall crowns.

One American is young, approachable, pretty, with straight, white teeth.

The other is Bode Miller.

One carries the banner of the U.S. team; the other was, more or less, ski-booted off of it.

One is rosy-cheeked and comparatively uncomplicated. She was Lindsey Kildow before marrying former racer Thomas Vonn last fall. The husband has white teeth too, and standing together they look like the figurines on their wedding cake.

Ain't love grand?

"I think she's in a happy place in her life," Thomas Vonn said after Lindsey clinched the World Cup downhill title recently in Whistler, Canada. "We got married, and I think that's added in a weird way some confidence to her. She just has a different kind of look about her. She has like a swagger to her."

Her name is now Lindsey Vonn.

His name has always been Miller.

She's 23 years old to his 30 and they seem to have little in common except for skiing fast.

Yet, they are in the throes of making a rare kind of history, together and separately.

Miller and Vonn have a chance to become the first U.S. male and female skiers to win World Cup overall titles in the same year since Phil Mahre and Tamara McKinney in 1983.

Miller is trying to fend off Benjamin Raich (Austrian) while Vonn attempts to hold off Nicole Hosp (Austrian). The outcomes may not be decided until the mid-March World Cup Finals in Bormio, Italy.

Miller and Vonn recently crossed tracks when the men's and women's circuits were at Whistler Mountain in what was an interesting, if not awkward, juxtaposition of U.S. Alpine firepower.

Vonn became the second American to clinch a World Cup downhill globe -- Picabo Street did it twice -- warranting a reception at the swanky Four Seasons in Whistler's Upper Village.

Bill Marolt, chief executive of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn., raised a toast to Vonn and the rest of his attending skiers.

Bode Miller's name was not invoked. It actually pained Marolt, a former competitive racer and Rick Neuheisel's long-ago athletic director at Colorado, to cast Bode adrift.

"As we all know, he's an interesting character," Marolt said of Miller, "and in a sense that's what makes him good. Talented people, no matter where you find them, always have interesting quirks and characteristics."

But U.S. coaches could not keep catering to Miller's quirks. "It doesn't work," Marolt said. "The business is too complicated. You have to accept some responsibility to be a part of it."

As a member or the U.S. ski team (sort of), Miller won the World Cup overall in 2005. This year he's doing it on his own.

The prevailing images of Miller and Vonn, oddly, were forged at the 2006 Turin Olympics in which neither won a medal.

Miller exited a pariah; she a blossoming, courageous, snow princess.

He had a chance to medal in five events. The American columnists who slogged up by bus from Turin were, thus, not amused when Miller failed to do so and then refused (mostly) to talk on his way to all-night partying in Sestriere.

Miller's was a multimedia savaging -- print, online, text messaging, word of mouth. It wasn't the end for Miller and the U.S., but you could see it from there.

Miller and conformity parted ways last spring in a move that coincided with the U.S. ski team deciding to no longer subsidize him. He now skis for "Team America" and continues to tour the circuit in his recreational vehicle -- one of the sticking points in his ski-team relationship.

John McBride, a former U.S. ski coach who is now aligned with Miller, said the U.S. ski team told Miller he could only remain with the team if he paid his own expenses through the off-season training.

"They didn't like his attitude and they thought that would be a good indication of his dedication to the team if he was willing to pay his own way," McBride said.

Miller, instead, cashed out.

Vonn left Turin on a different plane.

Her horrific-looking crash in a training run probably denied her a downhill medal, yet her heroic return from a hospital bed to an eighth-place finish put Vonn on a different pedestal.

"It's one of those breakthrough moments," Marolt said. The crash in Turin still haunts Vonn, but it didn't ruin her.

"It's hard to deal with at times, but I'm happy in some ways about the last Olympics, even with the crash," Vonn, the Minnesotan, explained. "I was ready, I gave it everything I had. Mentally I was prepared for it."

That Turin tumble threw her motivation motor into overdrive. She won two silver medals at last year's World Championships before a knee injury cut short her season.

"The Olympics is always there," she said. "It's the thing whispering to me in those tough times."

Vonn and Miller circled Whistler in different orbits. She was exceedingly accessible; he was his usually, slippery self.

Vonn and Thomas never seemed to tire from rounds of interviewing.

Marriage can be seen as spike strip to race performance, but the Lindsey-Thomas union has not slowed her as four of her nine career downhill wins have come this season.

Bode Miller may, actually, be in a better place too.

It's not just about Bode anymore, as he has had to bankroll a three-person support staff in a venture where only winning pays the bills.

"It's expensive," McBride said, "but he's got a lot of sponsors and luckily he's a pretty marketable guy. There's few people that can probably pull off what he's doing." Former U.S. ski mates say they don't notice much of a difference without Miller. He was always, in a sense, an independent contractor.

"The main disadvantage is not being able to train with him," said Ted Ligety, the defending Olympic champion in combined.

Miller hasn't had much need for the media since Turin. He is a god in Europe, where his exquisite ski talents are truly appreciated.

Waiting out Miller for an interview is still like waiting out Barry Bonds -- except it's colder. After finishing seventh in the Whistler giant slalom, Miller stood in the finish area and signed notebooks and ski helmets.

Miller at first stared blankly through writers who have dealt with him since before the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, where he won two silver medals.

Miller finally stopped.

"What do you want to know?" he said. "How am I supposed to predict who's going to win the overall?"

OK, then, what was it like being out on his own?

"The effort's been good," he said. "I mean, fitness-wise I've been strong, lots of stuff's been good. The organization of the team has been really good. That's been a lot more in line with what I believe will give me the best season that I can have."

Any downside to being skiing independent?

"It costs a lot of money, obviously," Miller said. "There's some logistical issues that are not hard, but they're there. And you have to deal with them both in the process and when things don't work you have to deal with that also. But it's not anything really new or out of the ordinary I would say."

Miller has said he wouldn't race in the 2010 Vancouver Games, but few believe him.

McBride thinks Miller will race in 2010. His coach also said Miller might even be willing, under the right conditions, to return to the U.S. fold.

Marolt declined to speculate on Miller's return.

For now, the focus is on Lindsey, and the spirited expatriate, and two World Cup overall titles out there for the American taking.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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