Nine-year U.S. veteran Daron Rahlves lives fast and skis faster, which could bode well for him in today's downhill
The stillness of a clear winter afternoon in the Sierras is laid to waste when Daron Rahlves turns the ignition key in his 1968 Camaro and punches the accelerator. A candy-apple-red muscle car with fat-boy tires, glistening chrome bumpers and a vintage, gas-guzzling 327-cubic-inch engine, the Camaro roars to life in one of the five garage bays adjacent to Rahlves's redwood house outside Truckee, Calif., near Lake Tahoe. Black exhaust belches from the rear of the coupe, which trembles with power, as if awaiting the start of a drag race.
Next to the car sit two Harleys, with two snowmobiles not far away. A pair of slick, racing-class Kawasaki Jet Skis are perched on shelves, covered in protective sheaths. Alone in a corner is a mud-caked Honda Four Trax, a low-slung all-terrain vehicle; in another section of the garage a 250-cc dirt bike rests on blocks next to a Cannondale mountain bike. Repeatedly, Rahlves (pronounced ralvs) pounds the Camaro's gas pedal, rattling the wood beams in the garage. "This thing blasts," he says. "You should see me smoke the tires in the summertime." He feeds the engine more fuel and grins impishly, a kid playing with one of his many toys.
Rahlves, 28, is one of the best speed skiers in the world, a nine-year veteran of the U.S. ski team. In this morning's Olympic downhill he has a genuine shot at winning a medal against a field that includes World Cup leader Stephan Eberharter and his three Austrian teammates, Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway and Kristian Ghedina of Italy. His chances are even better in next Saturday's Super G. Rest assured that he will joyfully contest every second of both races, because rarely have vocation and personality meshed so perfectly. When Rahlves isn't skiing fast for a living, he's doing something else fast. "It's not a good day if you've got something left to give at the end," says Rahlves. His days are mostly good -- and often deliciously perilous.
Last winter Rahlves completed his ascension to the top echelon of speed skiers, a climb that began in earnest in 2000 when he won back-to-back World Cup downhills on the tough 1994 Olympic downhill course in Kvitfjell, Norway. In January 2001 he was third in the prestigious Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbühel, Austria, and just 10 days later he beat the mighty Austrians in their own backyard, winning the world championship Super G at St. Anton. "He's become a complete racer on a top level," says Hermann Maier, the '98 Olympic double-gold medalist, who has trained with Rahlves for the last several summers. (Rahlves also finished fifth in the downhill at the worlds and might have done better had he not celebrated so hard after his Super G gold. "Too many Red Bull-and-vodkas," says Rahlves. "They're the best, but two days straight is a little much.")
Shortly after the World Cup season ended early last spring, Rahlves began enthusiastically endangering his future in the name of fun and adventure. First he flew to southeast Alaska with former U.S. ski team teammates Reggie and Zach Crist, brothers who make the type of mind-boggling ski-adventure movies that look so extreme as to seem computer-generated. For nearly two weeks Rahlves and the Crist brothers were filmed for a feature called Ultimate Descent. They skied some of the gnarliest terrain in the world, helicoptering to the top of 60-degree faces and slashing through unbroken powder along craggy, 6,000-foot-high cliffs, only to climb back into the chopper and do it again. "It gets a little scary," says Rahlves. "There are times when you're skiing along a one-foot-wide path, and it's a 50-foot drop if you make a mistake."
Says Zach, "It's not just heli-skiing, it's a totally different ball game. There aren't many skiers, even ski racers, who have the desire or the ability to ski that terrain. But if anybody could stick his nose in and survive, it's Daron, although it's unheard-of that somebody in the middle of a racing career would do this."
Back in the lower 48 after his movie stint, Rahlves climbed aboard his dirt bike and began pushing more limits. Pro dirt bikers such as Travis Pastrana and Corey Hart are his heroes. "Those guys," says Rahlves, "are incredible athletes." With Truckee buddy Jeff Wilson he built an eight-foot-high jump next to a stream in the back of his five-acre property, and last June he sailed over the water and landed 20 feet clear on the other side. At an early August motocross race in Livermore, Calif., Rahlves wasn't as fortunate. After flying more than 50 feet through the air off a jump, his bike bottomed out on the landing, jamming his left instep into the ground. Rahlves suffered torn ligaments and a torn tendon sheath in his ankle, injuries that will nag him through the Olympics and beyond. "It needs time that I don't have," Rahlves says. "I guess I ripped it up good, but it's to the point where it won't hold me back."
Rahlves also entered several skier-x races in Squaw Valley and Whistler, B.C., snowy roller derbies that match as many as half a dozen skiers in rollicking contests over a series of bumps and turns. On the water he drove Jet Skis and powerboats and made his first foray into wakeboarding last summer.
U.S. coaches have cringed at Rahlves's off-season play but simply roll their eyes in acceptance. "He comes back with injuries, and we don't even ask where they came from," says downhill and Super G coach Dale Stephens. "We have to realize that Daron enjoys risk -- it's part of who he is."
Zach Crist says, "The reason Daron is good as a downhiller is because he's a free spirit. Nobody wants to see him get hurt, but you can't take those things from him."
Risk taking seems to run in Rahlves's family. His father, Dennis, 55, a retired commercial real estate developer, set a world record for water-ski j umping (159 feet) in 1965, when he was 19. Later he went on annual African big-game safaris and has filled a cottage with the skins, stuffed heads and other parts of more than 100 exotic kills, including a cape buffalo, a hippopotamus and a crocodile. Daron's mother, Sally, 54, is still a strong enough snow skier to course through backcountry terrain. Dennis and Sally spread out athletic options like a rich, eclectic buffet in front of Daron and his younger sister, Shannon, and let them dive in. "Not the usual team sports," says Dennis, "but we did try to provide an opportunity."
Dennis and the children rode dirt bikes together before the kids were 10. They water-skied and rode Jet Skis on Echo Lake in northern California, and both children competed in Jet Ski races. In 1993 Daron won a world title in expert class, one level below pro championship class.
During the winter the Rahlves family commuted four hours every weekend from the Bay Area to the Lake Tahoe region. When Daron was eight, his parents bought a house near Tahoe's Alpine Meadows ski resort and moved there. "The kids loved to ski," says Sally. "They were entering little races and doing just fine, but a lot of the kids that Daron was racing against were skiing every day because they lived on the mountain. It seemed like Daron should live on the mountain too." Once there, Daron skied long and hard every day. "First on the hill, last to leave," says Dennis.
When Daron was 14, he enrolled in Green Mountain Valley School, a private school in Waitsfield, Vt., with a high-powered ski program that has produced many U.S. ski team members. Dennis and Sally followed, moving to Waitsfield for three years, the sort of family uprooting not unusual among ski clans. "We enjoy being with our kids," says Sally. "We miss them when they're not around."
Some top racers make the U.S. team late in high school or immediately upon graduation. Rahlves needed two years after leaving Green Mountain Valley, time he spent on various minor league ski circuits. At the start of the 1993-94 season he was finally added to the national team.
His rise to World Cup success has been a victory over convention. At 5'9" and 175 pounds, Rahlves is smaller than most world-class speed skiers. (For example, Maier is 5'11" and 195 pounds, and Eberharter is 5'11", 185.) Size helps skiers build momentum and velocity, and bigger men glide faster on relatively flat sections of race courses. Rahlves has compensated by training rigorously off the snow to make himself stronger and fitter than any other skier. He can power clean 260 pounds and snatch 185, both respectable numbers for an NFL defensive back. He can run 40 yards in 4.7. "He could be bigger for skiing downhill, but the guy is a specimen," says teammate Bode Miller. "You don't find someone more perfectly proportioned, light and strong."
When Rahlves races he takes tighter, riskier lines, creating speed where others simply survive, to allow for his slower glide. His aggressive approach has exacted a toll. Twice he has dislocated his hip in downhill crashes, including a 1998 spill in Norway after which he bit on a ski pole to combat the pain while team personnel tried, in an unsuccessful piece of battlefield medicine, to pop the hip back into its socket. "I take tactical risks with the lines I ski," says Rahlves. "That's the challenge of the sport."
Rahlves sometimes needs to escape from the pack to find his speed. Two years ago he struggled through the early part of the World Cup season before taking time off to free ski at home, and then he broke through in Norway. Last year he did likewise and won a world title. At the start of this season Rahlves flopped in early races and came home from Europe at Christmastime. He skied long days in the deep powder at Sugar Bowl Resort near his home, including countless trips down Rahlves's Run, a black diamond from the peak. "The feeling is back," he said, "and it's a sweet feeling once you get it."
One December morning he trained at Snowbasin, north of Salt Lake City, on slopes adjacent to the Grizzly course, site of the Olympic downhill. Grizzly is curvy and technical, which favors Rahlves over gliders. "Daron is athletic and a good jumper," says Maier. "He likes the course, I know." Rahlves soared off a jump near the bottom of the hill, landed with a slap on two long skis and tucked, sucking speed from the hill, plunging faster, faster. Always faster.