Rahlves reflects on most successful season
Daron Rahlves keeps the living room of his Truckee home simple. A coffee table and two Jabba-the-Hut-sized bean bag chairs are the only furniture in an oak room with two-story vaulted ceilings. The mantle immediately captures the eye.
There, beneath a ski print that stretches halfway up the fireplace, sit three Boccioni-styled, futurist trophies Ð a first, second and third place from the (64th International) Hahnenkamm Race in Kitzbühel, Austria. The trophies represent his biggest accomplishments on skiing’s biggest stage. The Hahnenkamm is like Augusta to a golfer, Wimbeldon to a tennis player and the Super Bowl to every American fan.
“It’s the ultimate race and the ultimate one to win,” Rahlves says, slouching into one of the room’s bean bag chairs before the phone rings.
It’s his agent. Back home for the first time in nearly eight months, Rahlves is in the middle of what he calls “victory stuff” Ð tallying his totals from his most successful season to date. Amidst the nine podium finishes he had this year, he somehow forgot a fourth place and almost missed out on $6,000.
“You usually don’t get paid for anything outside the top three,” he explains, after hanging up, “but sometimes companies pay for fourth.”
Fourth appears as important as a penny beside a heap of quarters for Rahlves. Already the top men’s downhiller in U.S. history, he cemented his status during the 2004 season, finishing with eight wins overall Ð the most by an American man in both downhill (six) and super G (two).
He took second in the downhill points total, equaling his USA-best performance from the 2003 season, and second in super G, an all-time U.S. best. He also took fifth in the overall title, despite only competing in two events while other skiers like Bode Miller did four or five.
“He’s obviously stepped into a place where he’s one of the most successful skiers the U.S. has ever produced,” coach Phil McNichols says. “He’s on track to become the first male competitor to win a title in the downhill or super G.”
And he’s doing it all at the age of 30, five years after most skiers a generation before him retired. At 5 feet 9 inches and 180 pounds, he’s one of the smallest skiers competing in a gravity sport where size and weight usually equal speed.
“The biggest reason I’m having so much success is that I’ve figured it out,” the consummate underdog says. “I’ve put my time in. I don’t have to think or go over it in my head anymore. I just know what to do. And that to me is a wonderful feeling when you’re totally committed and you feel calm in your head and you’re like, ‘OK, I’m just going to go at it and see what I have.’ I know if I put a good run down I could win on any given day.”
Rahlves hasn’t always been calm, he admits. In fact, after his disappointing showing at the 2002 Olympics, where he was expected to medal before a home crowd, he became so rattled he contemplated giving up the sport. But he pushed on, and the decision paid off in 2003 when he became the first U.S. downhiller to win the Hahnenkamm. The upset was so big the Austrian media named it Black Saturday.
“He took the wind out of the biggest party in Austria,” teammate and Squaw Valley resident Marco Sullivan recalls. “For him to conquer that course was huge.”
Teammates and coaches alike say the difference between the glory of that day and the dejection of 2002 has been Rahlves’ unwavering work ethic and growing experience. Though he’s not the most naturally talented skier on the World Cup tour, coach McNichol says, his training and competitiveness make all the difference in a sport decided by hundredths of seconds.
Growing up in Rahlves’ shadow in Tahoe, Sullivan once heard that Rahlves’ parents would tie up the dogs when he went running behind the family’s Truckee home because they were afraid the animals would die trying to keep up with him. After training with Rahlves for the first time last summer, Sullivan believes it.
“He just goes,” Sullivan says, recalling summer days Rahlves spent running 10 miles with a 30-pound race vest, lifting weights and riding his dirt bike for hours. “The kid’s a spark plug. It’s like he has the next Kitzbühel race in mind every day.”
Racing the same courses for 10 years also contributes to Rahlves’ success. Though he may be past his physical prime, knowing the different rolls and pitches of each run allows him to make up for it. Plus, years of crashing have taught him when to take risks and when to pull back on a slope.
“He and I can inspect the same course and he can see 50 percent more of the terrain features to take advantage of,” says Sullivan, who made his first World Cup appearance in 2001.
Rahlves’ ability to see bumps and adjust paid off this season when he won the World Cup Birds of Prey downhill in Beaver Creek, Colo., last December. His familiarity with the course allowed him to push through bumps and a cold virus to gain .22 seconds at the first interval, .43 at the second and .53 by the third interval. The win was the first by a U.S. man on home soil since 1984.
“The more you know you can do something, the more it fuels you,” says Rahlves, before launching into a list of goals for next year. The overall downhill title. Six downhill wins. Three super G wins. Improving in the giant slalom. “If you put something too easy out there, you’re not going to be fighting for it all the time.”
With Rahlves’ proven work ethic and experience, McNichol believes a discipline title like the downhill is not out of reach, especially if retirement rumors surrounding Austrian Stephan Eberharter, who won the downhill title this year, hold true. If he wins the discipline title, it will be the first in U.S. alpine history.
“The kid’s a player, and the sky’s the limit,” McNichol says.
Rahlves believes two off-season equipment changes could make the difference between his second-place finish in 2004 and a first in 2005. After six years in Lange boots, he plans to switch to Atomic. On training runs two weeks ago in Norway, his splits in the new boots were six-tenths of a second faster in the super G and eight-tenths faster in downhill.
The biggest change for Rahlves will be switching from American wax technician Willi Wiltz to Atomic factory representative Tom Buergler, who used to work with Eberharter. Though Wiltz is recognized as one of the best, Buergler has access to Atomic’s latest products, which could pay off big.
Atomic produced one set of skis for this year’s race in St. Anton, Austria, where conditions were unusually soft and cold. Hermann Maier wore the specially designed skis and won the super G.
“Daron’s trying to wring out the last 5 percent of what he can do,” McNichol says. “At his level, . . . (the switch to Atomic) is that last little bit he needs to be the very best in a sport that’s separated by microseconds.”
Miles away from the slopes and speed of Europe, Rahlves leans back into the bean bag chair in his Truckee home and slides his arm behind his head. His blue eyes look toward the three Kitzbühel trophies on the mantle and his thoughts drift.
“It’s just time for me to make it happen,” he says. “I’ve got all the support. Everyone’s made a lot of sacrifices to get me to No. 1, and I want to deliver.”
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