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Hermann Maier is Skier of the Year; Miller, Paerson, Clark take SR alpine awards

Hermann Maier is Skier of the Year; Miller, Paerson, Clark take SR alpine awards{mosimage}Everywhere we looked this year, athletes left us awe-struck. Anja Paerson consistently dominated her competition, to take win after win after win. And though “epic” is an oft-abused word, it really does befit the feats accomplished by Hermann Maier, who took his fourth World Cup overall title in a comeback season.

At various moments, many athletes left us speechless, but we’ve recovered, cast our votes, and herein salute the best in the world. Join us in celebrating their achievements.

Skier of the Year, International Alpine Skier of the Year
Hermann Maier
Age: 31
Hometown: Flachau, Austria
Skis/Boots/Bindings: Atomic/Lange/Atomic

While it is often the case, it is not a foregone conclusion that the winner of the World Cup overall should be our Skier of the Year. Bode Miller did, in fact, win more races than Hermann Maier. So did Kalle Palander. Each had six wins to Maier’s five. Winning the big globe sure helps, but this award is about what awes us, concerning both the person and the performance. 2004 left plenty to consider. As a now-dormant mid-30s athlete, I shudder to think that Stephan Eberharter won the downhill title a couple weeks before turning 35. The most successful active downhiller is now third on the all-time list. Awesome. There was Daron Rahlves — the model of determination, intensity and fearlessness, all delivered with gracious modesty — up against Austria’s two most prolific winners, Eberharter (with 29 World Cup victories) and Maier (47). Second in the downhill and super G title races, Rahlves beat both in one of their specialties; he just couldn’t beat them both at once. Still, an awesome season. Even without doing so regularly, Bode Miller had us believing he could win anywhere, anytime. Even when he fell, sometimes particularly when he did, it was a jaw-dropping spectacle. Add Benjamin Raich – who helped make this season the first ever with four contenders for the overall going into the final World Cup weekend – and this season started to look like the tightest contest we’ve ever had. That is, until you looked at Maier’s leg, forever gnarled from his 2001 motorcycle accident. When Lance Armstrong saw the naked limb before Maier foreran the 2003 Tour de France, the incredulous cyclist asked, “How can you ride with that?” He saw what has been hidden to many of us beneath the ski boot – a leg that looks like it won’t accept a boot, its sensations deadened within a mélange of muscles borrowed from here and there to share the burden of missing parts. I like to think Armstrong recognized a kindred spirit, an athlete whose will exceeds even his incomparable talents. The man who beat back cancer on his way to a record five Tour wins was probably not wondering how Maier’s leg was going to withstand forces of two and three G’s, or how it might snug into a boot while not interfering with Maier winning his 20th super G (twice as many as anyone else, ever), or his 47th race (more than all but Alberto Tomba and Ingemar Stenmark), or his fourth overall title (more than all but Marc Girardelli). No, the very Lazarus of sport comebacks was simply moved by the idea of Maier’s second coming – one that has just begun. How awesome is that?
– Stephen Porino

International Alpine Skier of the Year
Anja Paerson
Age: 23
Hometown: Tarnaby, Sweden
Skis/Boots/Bindings: Salomon

Anja Paerson executed a near-perfect celebratory belly-flop following her giant slalom win at the World Cup Finals. After a season that saw her win 11 races and capture the overall, slalom and giant slalom titles, it’s apparent that practice makes perfect — at least when it comes to belly-flops. The amiable Swede benefited from the absence of last year’s overall winner, Janica Kostelic of Croatia, who was stricken with thyroid problems, as well as Austria’s Nicole Hosp — out at mid-season with a broken ankle. But given Paerson’s dominance in the technical events, even their presences might not have influenced the final outcome. A new rival, or more accurately, an old, new rival, in the form of a reborn Renate Götschl from Austria, kept the heat on Paerson throughout the season with World Cup discipline wins in downhill and super G. Götschl’s constant pressure brought Paerson’s skiing to new levels and forced her into the speed races to gain additional points. Although Paerson had trouble scoring consistently in downhill, she placed sixth in the World Cup Finals super G and 15th in the season’s end super G standings. As a result, Paerson will have a few more weapons in her formidable arsenal when defending her overall title next year. In what can’t be construed as good news by her rivals, Paerson says, “Next season I hope I will be better in speed events. One of my dreams is to win one race in each discipline.” The 23-year-old doubled her World Cup victory total this season, bringing it to 22, and with time on her side, she has no intention of stopping there. “Now that I have the experience of a title fight, I will be more prepared next season,” she said. As for the short term, autograph hounds might find Paerson in the woods surrounding her Tarnaby home on her snowmobile — if they can catch her.
– Bill McCollom

Chevy Truck/Ski Racing U.S. Alpine Skiers of the Year
Bode Miller
Age: 26
Hometown: Franconia, New Hampshire
Skis/Boots/Bindings: Rossignol/Nordica/Rossignol

This award came down to a tight race between Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves. Rahlves had an incredible season, winning big at Beaver Creek, Kitzbühel, Kvitfjell and Sestriere. Second in two discipline standings and fifth overall, he was consistent throughout the year. In 19 speed starts, he scored 967 World Cup points. That’s an average of 51 World Cup points every time he pushed out of a super G or downhill start gate. And he did it all while being fun-loving, friendly and professional. But Bode Miller had an even better season, bringing home the GS discipline title and finishing fourth in the overall standings. Among his six wins were the GS at Park City (making him the first American man to win at home in 19 years), the Kandahar combined in Chamonix (Miller smashed his face on his knee in the downhill portion, breaking teeth and skiing blind for several gates), and the St. Anton slalom (taking the gold just down the slope from where he’d blown his knee out exactly two years earlier). The Cal Ripken Jr. of ski racing, Miller has started in every World Cup race in the last two years, using what little spare time remains to educate the media and his equipment suppliers, and to sign autographs for little kids in every nation who adore him even when he finishes 50th. In GS, he slides into the top of his turns and then initiates the arc with Bach-like precision. In slalom, he sometimes clears the gate not with his hand, his knee, or even his boot, but with the toe-piece of his bindings. Whatever event he’s racing, he finds a line that no one else knew was there, proving that there’s room for creativity in a sport where until a few years ago, people saw only regimentation. That creativity, along with Miller’s unique personality and intelligence, is turning the world on to ski racing, and that’s Miller’s greatest achievement so far: Like no athlete since Alberto Tomba, Miller is making ski racing cool again.
– Nathaniel Vinton

Kirsten Clark
Age: 26
Hometown: Raymond, Maine
Skis/boots/bindings: Fischer/Salomon/Marker

A 10-year veteran of the U.S. Ski Team, Kirsten Clark’s season was cut short on January 30, but that didn’t stop her from earning her second straight U.S. Alpine Skier of the Year award. The “Iron Lady” of the USST crashed hard at Haus im Ennstal, Austria, suffering her first serious injuries, but not before she had racked up seven top-six results, including podiums in speed and giant slalom. Her consistency brought her to ninth in the overall World Cup standings at the time of her season-ending crash. Despite missing the next six weeks of racing, Clark
still was the top American in the final overall standings with a ranking of 13th. Known for her determination and “take no prisoners” style of racing, Clark consistently earned the praise of her coaches, not only for her results, but for her attitude as well. The evening after Clark’s injury, head women’s speed coach Alex Hoedlmoser described Clark as an upbeat and positive influence on the team. One who was always there for her teammates. Commenting on Clark’s current condition, USSA medical director Melinda Roalstad said, “She’s doing great and her knee looks awesome. Her wrist also looks good, and her cast will be coming off by the end of the month. We expect her to be on snow by August.”
– B.McC.

Sprint/Ski Racing Juniors of the Year
Lindsey Kildow
Age: 19
Hometown: Burnsville, Minnesota
Skis/boots/bindings: Rossignol

It wasn’t that the winner of this award for the past four years, Julia Mancuso, had a bad year, it’s just that Lindsey Kildow had a breakthrough year, or at least a breakthrough second half of the year. Kildow came to realize her enormous potential the weekend of Janurary 17-18, with a fifth and third at the Cortina, Italy, downhill races, and she never looked back. Surging with confidence, Kildow went on to score World Cup points in all disciplines. On two occasions, once in super G and once in slalom, Kildow started in the 40s and clawed her way to a sixth and 13th, respectively. Her efforts in those races earned her a pair of “winStar of the Day” awards, given to the skier who starts in the weeds and finishes highest in the top 15. In between World Cup starts, she dropped in on the World Junior Championships, where she contributed a second, third and two fourths to her winning team; and then she added a bit of icing to her cake with a pair of wins at the Chevrolet U.S. Alpine Championships. Following Kildow’s dominating performance at Cortina, Alex Hoedlmoser, head women’s speed coach, said, “We’ve seen her ski so well in training and now she carried it into the race, which is excellent.” Kildow had a simpler explanation. “I just focus on elements in my skiing. I don’t worry about the results.” Whatever works.
– B.McC.

Ted Ligety
Age: 19
Hometown: Park City, Utah
Skis/Boots/Bindings: Völkl, Nordica, Marker

There was no shortage of candidates for this award. TJ Lanning and Nick Baker could have done great things if it weren’t for mid-season injuries. And Jeffrey Harrison got some votes for winning the giant slalom at the World Junior Championships, dominating the race with spectacularly well-timed, evenly pressured turns. But Ted Ligety, who started the season way off the radar, stands out from the rest of the juniors for the giant leaps he made in a single season. In October, this modest development-team kid from Park City was ranked 215th worldwide in slalom and 317th in GS. (We won’t even talk about his speed profile.) He lowered his points to around 15 in GS and around seven in slalom. He’ll start next season ranked in the top 50 in the world in slalom and the top 100 in GS. “I’ve been working on ankle flexion,” he said this January, as if that explained it all. Ligety is quiet and unassuming, which is why it’s so startling to witness his aggression on course. He attacks like he’s just about to be demoted, when it’s just the opposite. His hungry style led him to second place in the World Junior Championships slalom, a Europa Cup win, first place in the NorAm slalom standings and second in the overall NorAm standings (without even trying his hand at the speed events). At the World Cup slalom in Kranjska Gora, he was on his way to handily winning the second run when, four gates from the finish, he crossed his tips and went out, hiked and finished 23rd. The next day, he won the Europa Cup on the same hill. “Ever since last summer, when Ted has been given an opportunity to ski at the next level, he’s proven his ability to rise to the top of that group,” says Ligety’s coach, Adam Chadbourne. It’s exciting to watch a junior break through into new territory, and to enter that territory looking neither arrogant nor terrified, but genuinely confident and comfortable with his newfound speed, and as eager as his fans are to see what the next season brings.
– N.V.

Canadian Alpine Skiers of the Year
Thomas Grandi
Age: 31
Hometown: Canmore, Alberta
Skis/Boots/Bindings: Rossignol

The pieces finally came together this year for Thomas Grandi, who had his best season since he started racing World Cups back in 1993. The Banff native finished 10th in the slalom standings and 13th in GS — by far the best record among Canadian men. The indisputable highlight of Grandi’s season was his second-place finish at the Kitzbühel slalom. It was the end of a long medal drought (his other trip to the World Cup podium came in 1997). It was also the best-ever World Cup tech-event finish for a Canadian man. “This is well-deserved for Thomas,” said Alpine Canada President Ken Read, with tears in his eyes after Grandi’s result at Kitzbühel. “For us in building the program, he’s a dream athlete to have.” At 31, Grandi is a model of perseverance. He survived a series of injuries too long to detail here, as well as an overhaul of the Canadian team several years ago, during which many of Grandi’s peers were jettisoned; he’s now a decade older than many of his teammates. That hard luck story, combined with his multilingualism and perpetual friendliness, made his arrival at the top this year a cause for celebration – within the Canadian team and beyond.
– N.V.

Genevieve Simard
Age: 23
Hometown: Val-Morin, Quebec
Skis/Boots/Bindings: Rossignol

Geneviève Simard had a lot of weight on her shoulders this year. With Canada’s best tech and speed women dogged by chronic injuries (hip pain handicapped Allison Forsyth, and Melanie Turgeon’s back kept her out of the races), it fell to Simard to pick up the slack. On January 14, Simard did just that, attacking the Cortina d’Ampezzo super G course with effortless precision. Simard won the race by 0.65 seconds (her first World Cup win, and at the “women’s Kitzbühel,” no less). When cynics whispered that she’d gotten a boost from the wind, Simard set out to prove them wrong, charging into the second super G and putting herself within 0.02 of the leader at the final interval. Eight gates from the finish, she caught her tip and crashed hard, knocking herself out of competition for the next few World Cups. Back on snow for February and March, Simard continued to score. She won a Europa Cup giant slalom and had three top fives at Canadian nationals. She put herself at the forefront of a crop of Canadians who are eyeing the Vancouver Olympics. Those races are six years out; Simard’s speed and fortitude will serve her well in the meantime.
– N.V.

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