New Breed of Cat
With his leopard 'do, U.S. downhiller Chad Fleischer is getting ahead
Chad Fleischer turns heads even in New York City. As the U.S.'s best Alpine skier walked along a street in Manhattan last November, two young women gawked at the leopardlike black spots in Fleischer's yellow hair. "Pigeons?" one guessed. "Funny mumps," surmised the other.
In fact, the 28-year-old Fleischer's distinctive 'do is part of an identity makeover. Until the 1999 season Fleischer was best recognized for spotty skiing; he offered glimpses of superior talent, but it was buried by caroms off restraining nets. Ski historians list his upside-down airborne departure from the downhill run at Kitzb�hel, Austria, in 1995 as one of the sport's scariest moments. "I was a time bomb," says Fleischer, a two-time Olympian who crashed during his Games debut, in the Super G at Lillehammer in '94, and missed most of last season with a torn left rotator cuff suffered in a fall in Italy. "Guys hated skiing after me because there'd be a 20-minute course hold following my crash."
Soon after a dismal 1997-98 season Fleischer read a magazine article about endangered Asian snow leopards and the stealth and speed they use to survive, and it went to his head. "I wanted people to know me for something cool and positive, not just for killing myself?' he says. That summer Fleischer began the ritual he repeats every two months: He had his sandy hair cropped close, bleached and painted to simulate leopard spots. One day in May 1998 he was eating in a San Diego restaurant when a Chargers cheer-leader named Renee Flaster passed his table and told him, "I like your hair." They were married two years later. The Fleischers live in Chad's hometown of Vail, Colo., and these days Renee is both Chad's regular hair painter and a cheerleader for the Denver Broncos.
The changes in Chad run more than follicle-deep. In 1992 his mother, Linda, was found to have brain cancer and given three weeks to live. She fought courageously before succumbing in October '96. Chad was devastated that he'd failed to produce a breakthrough race while his mother was alive. "When she was sick, I'd cook her meals and carry her from the couch to the bedroom," he says. "Then I lost her. I went into the tank."
Fleischer didn't rebound until the fall of 1998, when he hired a personal trainer, dropped 20 pounds off his 6'2�", 240-pound frame and became a more disciplined racer. "I was pushing so much, I had lost my feel for the snow," he says. "I had to learn to see the course in slow motion."
In 1999 Fleischer won his second U.S. downhill title; placed second at the World Cup finals in Sierra Nevada, Spain; and collected on a bet he had made with his father, Bill. Because Chad earned a top-three podium place in Spain, Bill, the world's hippest 51-year-old, got a matching leopard cut only two days after having knee surgery. "Got it done while I was still medicated," says Bill, who first put his son on skis when Chad was two and watched him speed down the hill and break the skis. Before Chad's first race, four years later, Bill told him, "Whatever you do, don't stop," but he neglected to add that Chad should stop just after the finish line. Chad skied past the finish into a 15-foot ditch. "Even then," says Bill, "he was hanging on the edge, making you crazy."
Hanging Chads are like that.
Money in the Pool
Motivation for The Long Haul
USA Swimming wants its athletes to go the distance at the 2004 Athens Games. To encourage them, the organization is offering an incentive: Any U.S. swimmer who wins a gold medal in world-record time in the longest events—the 800-meter freestyle for women or the 1,500 free for men—will earn a $1 million bonus, with an additional $500,000 to go to the swimmer's coach. The money for the payoff will come from an insurance policy. "In the last 20 years we've put our emphasis on the sprints," says USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus. "We've basically forgotten about the distance events."