The Fall Line, by Nathaniel Vinton

The Fall Line: How American Ski Racers Conquered a Sport on the Edge

By Nathaniel Vinton

Reviewed by Seth Masia

Followers of American ski racing should feel a bit dizzy at the prospect that the U.S. Ski Team goes into the 2015 Alpine World Championships with a baker’s dozen of racers who have achieved the podium in World Cup races, and six who have won gold medals in recent World Championships or Olympics. The team has never before had this kind of depth – even at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, when five Americans medaled, the team claimed only six or seven world class performers.

This era of heady success had its first flowering in Vancouver, in 2010, when Americans won eight alpine medals – five of them by the outsize personalities Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn. These two athletes, dramatically different in temperament, have piled up World Cup championships while winning in all disciplines. Nathaniel Vinton, who has followed both racers closely for Ski Racing, the New York Times and the New York Daily News, has produced a classic study of the way Miller and Vonn came their separate ways to the top of the sport.

The book is a dual biography, following Miller and Vonn from early childhood, but diving deep into their recoveries from the disappointments of Torino, to triumph at Whistler.  Both athletes skied and won while hurt, and both showed fierce determination in recovering after injury, scoring their greatest triumphs in come-backs after surgery.

Miller and Vonn are natural talents, but in Vinton’s account they emerge as wildly different in character. While Vonn is a study in focused, disciplined ambition, Miller seems chiefly fascinated by the ways he can move through space. Vonn’s family made extraordinary sacrifices to support her talent; Miller’s family, supremely at home in their environment, gave him the freedom to expand in it. The young Miller trained himself by the running the smooth round rocks of the Carrabassett River and speeding, unsupervised, across the ice at Cannon Mountain; the young Lindsey Kildow grew up skiing endless runs of slalom at Buck Hill and Golden Peak. Miller can be said to have supervised his own development, to the extent of splitting off from the U.S. Ski Team for two years to hire his own support crew (he won the World Cup overall title as an independent); Vonn relied on the support of expert coaches, from Erich Sailer and Chip Woods to husband/mentor/manager Thomas Vonn. Vonn is savvy and polished in dealing with the press; Miller’s indifference to appearances has often led reporters into undignified frenzies of gossip-mongering.

Vinton tells a complex story involving dozens of racers, coaches, technicians, sponsors and family members. In a year-long competition like the World Cup circuit, the decisions and accidents of any single racer can have a cascade of consequences through the entire shifting hierarchy. His turn-by-turn descriptions of the ways skiers win – or crash – in significant races are among the best you’ll find in the literature. The Fall Line is a must-read for ski racing fans. Official publication date is February 2, which coincides with the opening event of the World Championships, the women’s Super G. You might want to read it while Vonn and Miller, plus Julia Mancuso, Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin and their international rivals, make new history at Beaver Creek.

WW Norton, 384 pages, $26.95.

This review appears in the January-February 2015 issue of Skiing History.

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