Posted: Friday February 24, 2006 2:40PM; Updated: Friday February 24, 2006 3:39PM
At the time, Knight was using Elan skis. "I had a terrible start, so I took the drastic step of switching companies after Christmas,'' says Knight. He changed back to Fischer, which he had used previously. Such a switch is difficult, both physically and financially (most ski contracts run for two years), but Fischer was a better fit for Knight, and they took him back. He says the switch was amicable.
Knight improved. He qualified for second runs in his first two races after the switch and finished 26th at Chamonix, France, and 14th on a tough hill in Adelboden, Switzerland.
"My skiing was going in the right direction,'' says Knight. But it was a learning process, and the team could not wait for a 30-year-old veteran to rediscover his rhythm.
After his 18th-place finish under the lights at Schladming, Austria, U.S. head coach Phil McNichol sat Knight down and dropped the hammer: "Phil said, barring something unforeseen, this was it for me on the team," Knight says. "I took one more trip with the team and then I went home and did a little skiing and a lot of soul-searching.''
Because Knight had shown some improvement, the team did not boot him entirely. They took him back, charged him the eight grand and told him he would again have to make the top 30 to keep his spot. To earn a third Olympic berth, he would have to make the objective World Cup criteria, which are to accomplish one of the following: a top three podium, two top 10 finishes or three top 20 finishes.
Again, Knight struggled early, failing to finish the first three slaloms of the year. He went into January without a placing and seemed destined to be left off the Olympic team. Except that only upstart Ted Ligety, with multiple podiums, was doing anything great.
"I had no results to speak of,'' says Knight. "But Ted was the only guy who had qualified. Bode had done nothing in slalom. It was still wide open.''
What Knight did next was remarkable. He was 17th back in Adelboden, Switzerland, and then after skiing out at Wengen, he finished 20th in Kitzbühel, Austria. That's two top 20s. Knight went to Schladming, the last slalom before the Games and the place where he was nearly dismissed a year earlier, needing a top 20. He qualified 30th -- last -- for the second run, by .05 of a second. He then torched the second run to finish 19th and clinch an Olympic berth under withering pressure.
"In hindsight, it seems so stressful,'' says Knight. "At the time, I was preoccupied with my equipment, which is a good thing, because it kept me focused on something. But I know it was stressful, too. At the end, when I look back on it, I feel proud of myself that I was able to stay within myself the entire season and just make it.''
He could be understandably bitter at nearly having been fired, much like 28-year-old teammate Scott Macartney (who also got a second chance, albeit without paying $8,000, and has responded with his best year on the World Cup circuit). But Knight doesn't do bitter.
"I try not to get angry at the messenger,'' he says. "The coaches are just doing their job. I really don't believe it's personal. They have to make room for younger athletes.''
In one way, Knight's value to the team is best viewed through another prism. Ligety, 21, who won an upset gold medal in the Feb. 14 combined event, told me last fall that Knight had been helpful to his development.
"I think you could say that Chip has mentored me a little bit,'' said Ligety. "I really owe him for that.''
Think of this as a cockeyed form of Knight's paying it forward. "When I joined the team [in 1993, at age 18], there were a bunch of jerks on the team,'' says Knight. "It was not a hospitable environment for young guys. And there can still be resentment toward the young guys, because the older guys say, 'Oh, my God, this kid is fast, he's going to take my spot.'
"But I think it can be better,'' Knight says. "And Ted is an incredibly easy kid to like. He's upbeat, he's fun to be around, and he's got almost an innocence around him. He's really got the makeup of a great ski racer.''
Knight will be gone long before Ligety. He could be gone soon, because while he made the Olympic team, he has not made the top 30 in the world. He went to the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Turin, which he had not done in Nagano or Salt Lake City, soaking in the ceremony. He has turned his thoughts to life beyond skiing, and those thoughts will be stronger than ever after Saturday.
Knight is not a threat to win the slalom. He is capable of an epic effort and perhaps a top 10. But he is a three-time Olympian who has survived on the cusp for longer than most, and that alone is a victory.