The trickle down effect
Bode Miller beat President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton Wednesday.
Michael Jackson came in fourth.
The victory came on the front page of America’s most-read newspaper, USA Today, where a vivid action shot of Bode blasting down a race course dominated the top half of the fold.
The headline: “Brash American poised to win skiing crown.”
On the same day, the cover of the Vail Daily also had a dominant shot of a ski racer roaring down an icy race course at Golden Peak in Vail, though the racer’s name was only familiar to local readers.
The parallels between the two images were undeniable.
There was Miller, 27, tucking in his sleek blue Spyder speedsuit and wearing his sparkling red, white and blue Briko helmet with the prominent Barilla logo in front. And, there was Cody Unicume, 14, wearing a red Spyder suit of his own and a shiny silver and blue Briko helmet with the same graphic design as Miller’s. Two tiny Barilla logos adorned the white bib worn by the local racer.
To glance at the competing front pages was to behold a peaking American hero and his progeny ” a pairing of the world’s most accomplished ski racer and a dreamer who hopes to follow in the same tracks.
Definitive proof was found Wednesday at the base of Golden Peak, where Unicume, before winning the boys’ super-G at this year’s J3 Junior Olympics, spoke of Bode-inspired dreams.
“My dream is to make it to the World Cup and be an all-around skier,” Unicume said. “Do all four events, like Bode basically.”
There’s no denying that Miller, on the cusp of becoming only the second American man to win the World Cup overall since Phil Mahre won his third straight in 1983, has made his presence felt in his home country this year, while making a dramatic run for skiing’s biggest prize abroad.
He’s been featured prominently in Sports Illustrated twice. Reporters from the New York Times, The Boston Globe, The L.A. Times, The Chicago Tribune and both Denver metro papers have joined the herd of European ski press that follow the World Cup circuit.
Miller’s efforts alone haven’t propelled U.S. skiing into the limelight. Colorado star Jeremy Bloom’s dazzling run to the World Cup moguls crown has garnered similar attention, and a breakout year from Vail’s Lindsey Kildow has only added more steam to a U.S. squad gearing up for a huge 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.
Miller’s run is arguably unmatched, however. There are the amazing athletic feats, which include Miller winning six of the first 10 races of the season, as well as becoming only the second manto ever win a race in all four World Cup alpine disciplines.
Then, there is the flair with which he has accomplished them. His stunt of finishing the combined portion of the downhill at the world championships in Bormio, Italy, in early February after losing a ski 15 seconds into the race only added to his legend.
His late-night carousing and his insistence on doing things his way ” including ignoring the advice of U.S. coach Phil McNichol ” have also been well documented.
With three races remaining at the World Cup finals in Switzerland, Miller is the king of the hill ” both figuratively and literally ” even if he fails to win the coveted overall.
As to what kind of effect he is having at alpine’s feeder levels is more difficult to access.
While Unicume said he aspires to be like Bode, three of his Ski and Snowboard Club Vail teammates competing in this week’s J3 Junior Olympics said that Miller wasn’t even their favorite American racer.
“He talks too much,” said Kitt Flowers, 14. “I like him. He’s good and everything, but sometimes he’s got a bad attitude.”
“He’s kind of a jerk,” said David Graebel, 13. “If he loses a race, he doesn’t even sign autographs.”
Flowers, Graebel and Hunter Schleper,13, the younger brother of local U.S. Ski Team veteran Sarah Schleper, said their favorite racer on the U.S. team was Daron Rahlves ” Miller’s teammate and the most successful downhiller in American history.
“He’s not as cocky,” Schleper said. “He’s also got good form. He’s good to watch and learn from.”
Aldo Radamus, executive director of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, said that Miller’s impact is hard to ignore, but said that his effort alone isn’t what is ensuring continued vitality in American skiing.
He said he sees it more as Miller and his cast of supporting characters.
“What I think the impact is with Americans that are now consistently at the top of World Cup skiing is it just pulls the entire nation with it because the trickle down effect of the standard we’re being measured to in our own country is now the top international standard,” Radamus said. “It also gives kids at this level ” the Junior Olympic level and Ski and Snowboard Club Vail ” the idea that when you get to be the best American, you’re now among the best in the world. … Although these kids don’t measure themselves directly against Bode, other kids do and these kids measure themselves against these other kids. It’s not just the national standard, it’s the international standard.”
The comparison between Miller and Lance Armstrong is an easy one to make. Armstrong carved out a niche for himself in the American psyche by dominating a sport whose core following is in Europe.
With that niche, Armstrong’s appeal then launched millions of Americans to take up cycling.
Alpine skiing, like cycling, has a stronger base in Europe as well, but Miller, like Armstrong, seems to be bridging the gap and building nation-wide interest for his sport.
“We’ll always have the challenge of being a huge country with a lot of different sports to excel in,” said SSCV coach Karen Ghent, a former member of the U.S. Ski Team herself. “Competing against the Europeans, who live in small mountainous countries, it’s difficult to compete against that. (Skiing) isn’t the national sport and I don’t think we should ever expect it to be. These personalities like Lindsey and Bode, though, they can market themselves, and I also think the U.S. Ski Team can do a better job. I think they could really market those guys who are winning right now. Americans love winners. This is the time to take advantage.”
Tom Kelly, vice president of the U.S. Ski Team who is in charge of marketing, said that steady growth of alpine skiing ” a healthy 2-3 percent annually for the last five years ” can be attributed to a number of factors.
Strong club programs like Ski and Snowboard Club Vail are vitally important, Kelly said.
Then, of course, there are the sport’s stars who are pushing the sport forward.
To say that Miller’s success this year is the be-all and end-all for the future of U.S. skiing would be incorrect, though, said Kelly.
“I wouldn’t look just at this season. Yeah, we’ve had some great success and Bode’s been in the news, but the thing is we’ve been consistently in the news for a number of years now,” Kelly said. “It’s hard to say when was the really big starting point. Picabo (Street) was a huge deal in the late 90s and then Daron’s win in St. Anton, (Austria) in 2001, that was about the time that Bode was coming on. And certainly Bode at the Olympics in 2002 and then Bode continuing to challenge for discipline titles and the overall title the last couple of years, Daron having tremendous success, those things have kind of combined to bring excitement to the sport of alpine ski racing.”
The jury is still hung. Tiger Woods didn’t invent golf, but his appeal is undoubtedly helping his sport cross into new territory. There are other names that draw similar parallels: Andy Roddick, Michael Phelps, Michelle Wie, Serena Willliams and Michael Jordan.
Unicume said, if anything, that Miller’s success proves that hopefuls like himself can get to where they want to go from here.
The likely overall win is the proof that dreams do come true.
“We follow the World Cup all the time. Every time we can watch a race, we watch it,” he said. “It all gives us hope to know that America is still in the race and it’s not just the Europeans.”
Staff Writer Nate Peterson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.