Rahlves at crossroads of skiing career
ASPEN, Colo. – At a private party teeming with young Winter X stars and their doting fans, Daron Rahlves cuts a different figure standing next to the Aspen bar, waiting for a drink.
With his closely cropped blonde hair, shaved face, nondescript white collared shirt, and jeans that actually match his waist size, Rahlves appears a little out of place amid all the scruff and flannel.
Not that he cares. Rahlves is arguably the most talented athlete in the room: A three-time Olympian, the most accomplished male speed skier in U.S. history with 12 World Cup wins, the first American to ever win the renowned Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbühel, Austria, and a Winter X gold medalist to boot.
He carries himself like a guy with nothing to prove. Someone who doesn’t need the attention.
And yet, the reason Rahlves is here, and not back at his home in Truckee with his wife and his two young twins is because he has one more race to win.
In conversation, Rahlves admits that he never thought he would end up here, now, a Winter X Games star talking about his chances of capturing an elusive Olympic medal next month, nearly four years after he walked away from the World Cup Alpine circuit.
He finds it humorous that he’s now back on the U.S. Ski Team, as a member of the freestyle squad no less.
When he raced Alpine, he says the freestyle guys were often referred to as “bump fags.”
“Now I’m one of them,” he said with a grin. “It’s a pretty cool change.”
For the record, Rahlves, who qualified seventh on Friday, said he never retired.
“For me, it was more of a transition,” he said. “It was, I’m walking away from racing, but my goal now is I want to start filming and I want to go to X Games. I want to check out this new sport, skier X, and see how it goes.”
It’s gone well, judging by the results. Rahlves took his lumps at first, but after winding up in the netting a number of times during his first season of skiercross racing, including the final at his first Winter X Games in 2007, he claimed the gold at Buttermilk in 2008. The win came against his old friend and former teammate on the U.S. Alpine squad, Old Snowmass’ Casey Puckett.
Rahlves is big on respect. He believes it’s something to be earned. That is why he doesn’t begrudge Puckett, the only other male skiercross athlete from the U.S. heading to the Vancouver Winter Games, for taking the opportunity to bump him off course a few times when he first started competing more than three years ago.
“We battled hard, head-to-head, and I was out to get him. He was always winning; I was always crashing,” Rahlves said. “And now, it’s like, we kind of made a decision to join forces and work together. I think we’re better off doing that, working as a team. We can help each other out and be faster out there.”
Puckett recently had shoulder surgery and won’t race this weekend at Buttermilk, although he has vowed to show up in Vancouver to vie for skiercross glory in what will be his fifth Olympics.
Rahlves, just the same, is not taking his last shot at the Olympics lightly.
“It’s the one medal, the one accolade in the sport that I haven’t had,” said Rahlves, whose best Olympic result was a seventh in the super-G at the Nagano Winter Games in 1998. “I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth for a few Olympic experiences.”
He came into the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 having claimed a World Championship gold in super G the year before, but managed only an eighth in the super G and a 16th in downhill. At the 2006 Turin Games, Rahlves said he “crushed” his downhill training run, only to finish a disappointing 10th on race day.
“That was a hard one to suck up,” he said. “I thought I was going to be able to take that one and finish off my racing career. My first training run was faster than my race day run. I was a second faster, which has never happened. The wheels just fell off. Some things just didn’t come together.”
Now he gets another chance. A skiercross medal won’t make up for not getting that downhill gold, Rahlves said, “but it’ll still be pretty awesome.”
“To be able to debut a new sport [in the Olympics], that doesn’t happen too often,” he added. “It sounds cheesy, but I’ll definitely be getting the chills.”
To ensure he doesn’t leave Vancouver with any regrets, Rahlves installed a dryland start gate at his home in Truckee this past offseason. He says he would go up at the end of each day, once the kids were in bed and do a few pulls in the dark just to get the repetition down.
He also worked with his home resort of Sugar Bowl this winter to build a cross track, and he has worked on his starts there whenever he has been home. This season, his best result in four World Cup skiercross starts was a second earlier this month in St. Johann, Austria.
It’s the kind of work ethic that made Rahlves, at just 5 feet, 9 inches and 175 pounds, the most successful male downhiller in U.S. history. It’s how he earned respect in a sport where he competed against other World Cup stars whose builds more resembled those of NFL linebackers.
Not that respect, when it was deserved, was always forthcoming.
“Hermann Maier, it took him probably like six, seven years on the World Cup to hear him say my name,” Rahlves said of the legendary Austrian skier. “I’d say, ‘Hey, Hermann, what’s up?'”
Rahlves then does his best Herminator impression: “He’d be like, ‘Uhhhhh, hey.’ He’d never reply like, ‘Hey, Daron.’ I never got a straight-up handshake or a genuine look in the eyes, like, ‘Hey, nice job today’ from him when I beat him. It’s just like, what a blockhead, you know?”
Rahlves also had a small spat in 2004, through the press, with freeskier and Winter X Games star Tanner Hall. Hall questioned the lucrative sponsorship money World Cup skiers made for skiing down just “one icy-ass run.”
Rahlves shot back that he’d give Hall the skis if he wanted to come to Kitzbühel and do just that. The controversy fizzled out quickly thereafter, with both skiers admitting mutual respect for one another’s unique talents.
One couldn’t help but notice, given that history, that the two were at the same party put on by Red Bull and Oakley – both brands that sponsor Hall and Rahlves. Such is cross-pollination that takes place in the universe of Winter X.
When asked about the Winter Olympics picking skiercross, instead of halfpipe skiing, as a medal event, Hall, for a change, was anything but outspoken.
“It’s all skiing, you know what I mean,” he said. “It’s going to be good to see Daron out there killing it this year, and hopefully he gets a gold medal and it just opens up more doors and opportunities for different aspects of our sport.”
Rahlves couldn’t say it any better himself.
“It’s fun to do something new,” he said. “I don’t just want to be a racer. I want to be a skier. My other big goal is just to do things in the sport and have it be challenging in new ways where I’m learning new stuff. I feel like the rookie out there now.”
Still, even at 36, there’s no backing down.
Rahlves could only laugh when asked about the recent comments made by Austrian Alpine coaches that defending World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn has dominated in downhill this season because she is heavier than most of the other racers. It sounds right out of the same playbook that Austrian coaches used when he and Bode Miller began winning World Cup races and World Championship medals.
“The Austrians, just bottom line, just can’t deal with defeat,” Rahlves said. “They gotta come up with some excuse for why they’re not winning. There’s a few Austrians (who} are great guys. You can’t throw them all together. I have a lot of respect for them, they have a lot of respect for me. They win, and look you in the eyes and say congrats. But some of those guys, they’re looking for excuses.”
As for Vonn, Rahlves couldn’t be more proud to be on the same team. Yes, the U.S. Ski Team and the Olympic team, but also the Red Bull team.
“She is winning because she is skiing with so much confidence, and she does not hold back,” he said. “I saw one race this year, and I was so impressed. Laying it up, on the edge of going down, and she had those skis tipped up just charging and all the other girls are like in that hold-on, oh-(shoot) position. And Lindsey’s just crushing it. She can make a mistake and she’s still going to win. She’s gonna own the Olympics this year for Alpine.
“I’m always pulling for Red Bull,” he added. “We’re a pretty tight family, and if you’re wearing that hat you have to be good and be confident in taking risks to be one of the best. I think we kind of just rub off on each other.”