Aspen ski racer Wiley Maple confident after Bormio success, likes Olympic chances | SierraSun.com

Aspen ski racer Wiley Maple confident after Bormio success, likes Olympic chances

Austin Colbert
The Aspen Times

Wiley Maple wasn't going to miss the Dec. 30 Audi Ajax Cup, the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club's annual fundraiser.

Even though his flight from Chicago was delayed and he spent the night of Dec. 29 sleeping in a random nook at Denver International Airport, he was able to catch a 7 a.m. flight the following morning, have his parents pick him up from the Aspen airport and take him straight to Aspen Mountain in time for the races.

"It was pretty fun, but I was whooped after that," Maple said. "I went to the after-party for, like, one drink and then went home."

Only two days prior, on Dec. 28 in Bormio, Italy, Maple finished 24th in a World Cup downhill race for his first World Cup points in almost two years after missing the entire 2016-17 season because of injury. He said the Bormio finish will keep him "solidly in the running" to represent the U.S. on the alpine Olympic team.

Maple, the 27-year-old Aspen native, has been on and off the U.S. Ski Team since his first World Cup races in 2011. This season, he is not an official member of the team, although fellow Aspenite Johno McBride, the men's head speed coach, has kept Maple around.

And it seems for good reason.

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"I'm starting to ski really well, actually," Maple said late last week from a bench at the base of Aspen Mountain. "I'm starting to feel confident in training. I've had some fast training runs and just had my best finish of the season, which is good. But I definitely need to go faster."

A rough start to the season

Maple's comeback this season certainly has the feel of an underdog story. If it weren't for his relationship with McBride, there is a chance he might not be competing on the World Cup, if skiing at all. Numerous knee and back injuries have somewhat derailed his career, part of the reason the U.S. Ski Team cut him loose yet again.

His season started at Lake Louise on Nov. 25, where Maple took 39th in a downhill, his first World Cup competition since February 2016. The next day, he failed to finish his run in the super-G.

Then came Beaver Creek, which was a disappointment for the entire U.S. speed team, Maple included. He didn't finish his super-G run before finishing 50th in the downhill the next day.

"Life is certainly a comedy, even when it seems like a tragedy sometimes," Maple quipped. "Ski racing is an enigma to me, still."

After Beaver Creek, Maple returned to Lake Louise in Canada for a pair of Nor-Am races, taking 11th in the downhill and 17th in the super-G. As Maple put it, he got his "ass kicked," producing results similar to when he was in his teens and it left him wondering if he still had it.

He returned to the World Cup in mid-December in Val Gardena, Italy, where he didn't get to start the super-G because of weather — the race was called after 38 skiers took to the course — and took 41st in the downhill while watching two teammates, Jared Goldberg and Bryce Bennett, each finish in the top 11.

The difficult part about Val Gardena was how good Maple did in training; he finished second to only Goldberg in the first downhill training run and 10th in the second. To go from that to a DNS and a finish outside the top 40 was difficult.

All of which made Bormio that much sweeter.

"It was nice to kick that door down a little bit and take some pressure off myself," Maple said. "Hopefully now I can just ski and focus on competing instead of all the other variables in my life."

FINALLY FINDING SUCCESS

The U.S. team was able to train with the Italians, Austrians and French in Bormio ahead of the races, and that extra session paid off. Six American men, including Maple, finished in the top 24 of the lone downhill training on the Italian course. Three of them would finish in the points (top 30) two days later in the race: Bennett (16th), Goldberg (18th) and Maple (24th).

It was Maple's best World Cup finish since taking 24th in a super-G at the Olympic test event on Feb. 7, 2016, in Jeongseon, South Korea.

The next men's speed race is Jan. 13 in Wengen, Switzerland, a downhill. Wengen will hold an alpine combined the day prior and a slalom the day after. Maple expects to compete in that downhill — he only competes in speed events — and hopefully again the following week on the famed Kitzbuehel course in Austria, even though his relationship with the U.S. Ski Team remains fluid.

"It's a little unknown, I suppose. I assume the ski team wants me to continue to travel and train with them and race with them. Whether or not that's true, I don't know," Maple admitted. "Johno definitely wants me full time on the World Cup traveling with them. But he doesn't have full control all the time, so who knows?"

THE OLYMPIC UNDERDOG

Maple is 38th in the World Cup downhill standings with his seven points earned in Bormio. This puts him third among American men, with Bennett's 59 points putting him in 19th and Goldberg's 50 points putting him in 21st.

Only three American men — Thomas Biesemeyer, Travis Ganong and Andrew Weibrecht — have scored points in super-G this season. Ganong recently announced he would miss the remainder of the season after tearing his ACL in a crash at the Bormio downhill.

This, along with veteran Steven Nyman's slow return from injury, means the door is wide open for anyone to make the U.S. Olympic team, including Maple.

"At the moment I'm looking pretty good, just because we haven't executed that well," Maple said. "I'd say I'm solidly in the running, but we all need to step it up coming into the next couple of races and fight it out."

Maple said the U.S. speed team could take as many as five men per discipline, based on a combination of World Cup points and coaches' discretion. Maple missed the 2014 Olympic cycle with injury, so him earning a spot on the Pyeongchang team would be a major coup for the rebellious Aspenite.

The U.S. could announce its Olympic team as soon as the Kitzbuehel races. After that, there is only a Jan. 27 downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, to go for the speed team before Olympic training gets underway in South Korea on Feb. 8.

"I'm definitely planning on going," Maple said of the Olympics if he gets the nod. "I think our speed team is really going to start punching it in soon. We've all been skiing really well. That little session in Bormio with the other teams, we were actually winning the majority of the training runs. Hopefully it will come together."

acolbert@aspentimes.com