March 14, 2005
LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland (AP Eriica Bulman)--This year's Alpine skiing World Cup season made for a good movie plot.
The men's story features Bode Miller, a captivating American rebel with enormous talent. He starts strong, but falters and must overcome obstacles and self-doubt to finally defeat archrival Benjamin Raich of the powerful Austrian Wunderteam to claim the sport's most coveted prize, the overall title.
``I was doubting myself, there was a struggle, but that's what it's all about. I challenged myself and came out on top,'' Miller said Sunday. That was when he received the large crystal globe given to the overall World Cup winner that Austrians had held for five years, and had been in European hands 21 years.
The women's story is both thrilling and moving, a combination of fairy tale and cliffhanger, featuring the likable and skilled Anja Paerson of Sweden and the determined Janica Kostelic of Croatia, returning from grave illness.
``We both are the same age,'' said Paerson, 23, who won her second straight title. ``We started almost at the same time on the World Cup. So many things are alike _ my father and her father (coach us). Maybe we're not best friends but we appreciate each other as skiers. We're both great skiers.''
The men's plot begins with protagonist Miller, showing all the potential of a true champion by winning six of the first 10 races, an unprecedented accomplishment. He wins a night slalom under the lights of the romantic Italian resort of Sestriere to complete a four-discipline sweep in just 16 days _ the shortest time span ever.
But Miller soon loses his superpowers, failing to win a single race the next three months. He crashes out in slalom after slalom, previously his strength.
In the previous two seasons, Miller fell short in the final weeks, and the knowledge worries his team. He fails to finish both races in Kranjska Gora, two weeks before the final, while the confident Raich finishes first and third.
Miller shows a glimmer of his former abilities in Kvitfjell, finishing fourth in downhill and fifth in super-G. He enters the final with a precarious 52-point lead in the overall standings, down from a 400-point advantage in December.
As Hollywood endings go, Miller gathers his forces and finishes second in Thursday's downhill, then survives a mistake at the bottom of the course to tie teammate and friend Daron Rahlves in the super-G. In an almost too-perfect situation, Rahlves posts his first win of the season without costing Miller points, allowing Miller to claim the discipline title.
Then Miller becomes an American hero, finishing second in the GS, beating Raich on points to claim the overall crown and ending a 22-year drought for the U.S. skiing team.
In the women's plot, Paerson, the personable and talented young Swede, is out to defend the crown she took from Kostelic the previous year. The Croatian sensation, once a dominant force on the women's circuit, seems unlikely to be a factor in the fight for the overall championship; she is inconsistent after coming back from illness and injury.
Missing the entire previous season to have her thyroid removed and for several knee operations, Kostelic slowly and quietly gains momentum. Paerson, Finland's self-assured Tanja Poutiainen, and mighty Renate Goetschl of Austria all wrestle the overall lead from each other throughout the season.
But Kostelic seems to surge out of nowhere at the world championships, winning all three races she enters _ slalom, downhill and combined _ while Paerson takes gold in the super-G and giant slalom in her absence.
The two enter the season-ending giant slalom a hairbreadth apart on Sunday. Paerson, who holds a 35-point lead, is the favorite. But Kostelic is lifted by the knowledge she dominated the Swede at worlds.
Kostelic finishes far ahead of Paerson in the final leg. The entire sseason comes down to the final skier _ Maria Rienda Contreras of Spain, who posted her first World Cup victory only the week before _ to determine the points difference at the top.
The Spaniard storms to the top of the podium, dropping Kostelic a spot and denying the Croat the four points she needs to take the title, handing it instead to Paerson.
``Today we showed how tight and good we are. It comes down to a few hundredths every time and I don't think that's going to change for the next few years,'' Paerson said.
Copyright à‚© 2005 The Associated Press