Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


February 26, 2015

America's Going Downhill Fast

NYDN reporter Nathaniel Vinton chronicles the unexpected rise of the US Ski Team.

Michael Gluckstadt

There are many areas of competition—like building skyscrapers, competitive eating, and running the pick and roll—where America has ceded its long-held grip on the top spot. But then there are those categories where through sheer force of will, the US has been able to shed its underdog status and emerge as a player on the world stage. The US Ski Team represents the latter.

Nathaniel Vinton, photo credit Jonathan Selkowitz.
"Downhillers do crazy things, and also get to live in the mountains. They put their lives on the line at 90 miles per hour. It makes them interesting people."

Nathaniel Vinton, photo credit Jonathan Selkowitz.

In a sport that had long been dominated by Europeans, the recent rise of American talent in downhill skiing was unexpected. But, as New York Daily News reporter and former ski coach Nathaniel Vinton points out in his book The Fall Line: How American Ski Racers Conquered a Sport on the Edge, it was no fluke.

"The accomplishment of US Ski and Snowboard Association has been making gifted athletes and good team organization work in concert with each other," Vinton tells Gelf. "There were some stubborn athletes and some coaches with great vision."

Vinton's book chronicles this development through an examination of one year in the sport, as Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller prepare for their historic runs at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics—neither of which were a sure thing by any means.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Vinton tells Gelf why he chose to focus on those two athletes, why he learned never to count out Bode Miller, and how global warming is affecting the sport.

Gelf Magazine: You've spent many years around the US ski world. Were you surprised by its ascension in competition?

Nathaniel Vinton: The US Ski Team that I read about religiously while growing up as a junior ski racer in Utah had some great individual athletes but nothing like the broad, sustained success the team has now. I was surprised enough that I devoted much of this book to mapping how it happened.

Gelf Magazine: The story you tell follows Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller closely as they prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Why did you decide to focus on this specific slice?

Nathaniel Vinton: It's was a wild and suspenseful season for Vonn and Miller in so many ways: both of them enduring injury and politics in a quest for a first Olympic gold medal. It was also high stakes for NBC Sports, the ski factories, the US team's administrators and coaches, and others. Miller dissolved his independent team and became a father. Vonn got screwed by her ski sponsor and made a risky equipment change right before the Olympic season. Also, that was the winter when a warm climate almost derailed the Vancouver Games. I covered the ski beat pretty closely that whole season so I had a ton of reporting banked. Then I spent years researching it so I could reconstruct it as a linear story.

Gelf Magazine: How much of their success would you attribute to natural talent and how much to institutional investment?

Nathaniel Vinton: The accomplishment of US Ski and Snowboard Association has been making those two things—gifted athletes and good team organization—work in concert with each other. There were some stubborn athletes and some coaches with great vision.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think we'll see Bode Miller ski again? If not, how would you sum up his legacy?

Nathaniel Vinton: I learned at least a decade ago to never make predictions about him, but there are a lot of signs pointing to retirement now. His legacy to American skiing is enormous, and I guess I have to let the book explain that. I think his greatest record is winning World Cup races in each of four disciplines within a 16-day span in late 2004.

Gelf Magazine: As a member of the New York Daily News sports investigative team, you've covered Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, and Lance Armstrong, among others. How do skiers' attitudes compare to those of other athletes?

Nathaniel Vinton: Skiing is an affluent sport but professional Alpine ski racing is a tiny little community that doesn't have insane sums of money coursing through it—the sudden bursts of money in sports that can introduce the kind of corruption that big pro sports see. So skiers aren't often under the same pressure to be someone they are not. Also, downhillers do crazy things, and also get to live in the mountains. They put their lives on the line at 90 miles per hour; that complicates their attitudes about a lot of things and makes them really interesting subjects for journalism.

Gelf Magazine: Is doping as much of a concern in winter sports?

Nathaniel Vinton: Yes absolutely. It's important for reporters who cover it to be vigilant, even if that causes some friction.

Gelf Magazine: Many tennis purists complain that technological advances have rendered their sport unrecognizable. Is there a similar concern among ski fans?

Nathaniel Vinton: I don't think that concerns people. Ski racing fans are used to evolution going back to the move from wooden skis to metal ones, or from leather boots to plastic, and then synthetic speed suits and so on. Check out this awesome video of Roland Collombin of Switzerland in 1974 on the bottom 1/4 of the Lauberhorn track at Switzerland. The course follows the same route today, but the snow would never be that bumpy. The course has gotten turnier, but speeds have increased. It actually looks like a more daring feat in the 1970s but it still takes a lot of guts now. And we now have the advantage of being able to replay it on YouTube.

Gelf Magazine: I love to ski—how different is what my friends and I do from what the professionals do?

Nathaniel Vinton: Depends if you push yourself to the very limits of what you can do every time you go out there. Or do you just cruise along idly, maybe with your boots unbuckled, stopping frequently for coffee and french fries. That's me.

Gelf Magazine: Is global warming a serious and tangible concern for the ski world?

Nathaniel Vinton: Absolutely. Shrinking glaciers mean less training space for top racers. The shorter winters predicted for many elevations mean less chance that great athletes from those regions will be drawn into the sport. The IOC is finding new places to put the Olympics, and hopefully they aren't someday forced to pick a site that can't guarantee snow.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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