Mayer breaks through with a silver in mogulsPosted: Tuesday February 12, 2002 11:52 PM
With a former Olympic gold medalist and a future Division I wide receiver as his teammates, the wild-card competitor from outside of Buffalo, N.Y., didn't get much press coming into the Olympics. But as reporters gathered other people's stories last week, the 19-year-old Mayer quietly was scripting his own fairy tale, to be played out on Tuesday afternoon.
"Travis came to practice the other day and announced, 'I feel like I can slay dragons,'" U.S. coach Jeff Wintersteen said after his pupil became the surprise silver medalist. "We've been calling him "the dragon slayer" ever since."
Perched at the top of Deer Valley's perilous mogul course in the fading sun of Tuesday afternoon, Mayer had some monstrous runs to beat. After Finland's Janna Lahtela and France's Richard Gay had seized first and second place with near-flawless runs, and 1998 U.S. gold medalist Jonny Moseley had expertly served up one of his signature Dinner Roll flips for the third position, Mayer, whose top qualifying score earned him the last run in the finals, knew he needed to do something heroic in order to medal. With over 30 upstate New Yorkers screaming bloody murder at the bottom of the hill, Mayer spat into the snow, grinned beatifically, and threw himself into the fire. With two towering jumps (a heli-cross and triple-twister) and the sharpest turns in the field, the boy from Buffalo convincingly, and surprisingly, vaulted into second.
Mayer's breakneck speed to the bottom of the course (his time of 26.67 seconds was bested only by Lahtela) paralleled his journey to Salt Lake City. Mired on the U.S.'s C team through last summer, Mayer started shooting up in the world rankings not long after placing 27th in this season's first World Cup event in Tignes, France. "He was very skilled, but he simply needed to gain confidence," said Wintersteen, who made the unproven Mayer a "coach's discretionary pick" going into the World Cup circuit. "He started to do well when he started to feel invincible."
People who know Mayer say that there are few things he can't do. Taught to ski at the age of three at Buffalo's rinky-dink ski resort Holiday Valley -- which compensated for its gentle slopes by texturing a section of the hill with some of the area's best bumps; U.S. women's mogulist Jillian Vogtli, who competed on Saturday, also developed her skills there -- Mayer quickly became one of the top junior skiers in the East.
His grandmother Pat Burns remembers being unable to pull six-year-old Travis away from the television set during the 1988 Olympic skiing events. "I said to him, 'Do you want to go to the Olympics one day?'" said Pat, who, at the time, was babysitting while Travis' parents, avid skiers, were on a winter vacation. "That little boy looked at me and said, 'Oh, yes, Nana, more than anything in the world.'"
When he was 13, "we knew we had to made a decision as to how far Travis wanted to go in the sport," said Mayer's father, John, who skied at the University of Wyoming before taking over his family's West Seneca, N.Y.-based Mayer Bros. beverage company. Knowing that the best skiing was in the West, Travis moved to Steamboat Springs, Colo., to train and attend school when he was 15.
It was in Colorado, where his parents bought a second house, that Mayer developed his world-class skills. "He's a very precise person ... pretty much at everything he does," said 25-year-old brother Garrett, who marvels at his Travis' work ethic. A sponge for knowledge, Mayer had a 3.85 GPA in his first semester at Cornell, where he will re-enroll in the spring or fall; an animal in the weight room, the 5-foot-10, 154-pound Mayer can squat 435 pounds.
Stuck on the third-string national team last year, Mayer contemplated hanging up his skis and becoming a full-time student. Instead, he roared through the second-half of the World Cup season with a nothing-to-lose attitude. With a surprise, Olympic-roster-spot-clinching win in the New Year's Eve Gold Cup, which was also held in Deer Valley, Mayer exploded onto his competitors' radar screen. "When I heard [Travis] had won here, I knew it was going to be tough to beat him," Lahtela said following the competition.
After conquering all but one of the world's best, Mayer was humble about his heroics. "I didn't really expect this to happen -- I'm just enjoying my Olympic experience so far," he said. Surely, with only one year of elite-level skiing behind him, this Olympian's story has only just begun.
Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King is in Utah covering the Olympics for Sports Illlustrated Olympic Daily and CNNSI.com. Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.