KITZBUEHEL, Austria -- Hahnenkamm downhill champion Daron Rahlves was honored in Kitzbuehel with the dedication of a gondola bearing his name -- one of many traditions of the fabled race. Rahlves joins a prestigious group of past Hahnenkamm champions to have his name elmblazoned on the gondolas of Bergbahn Kitzbuehel, which carry recreational skiers and racers alike to the top of the fabled streif. Bergbahn Kitzbuehel honored Rahlves in a special ceremony following the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships.
"It was wonderful", Rahlves said with a huge smile. "It's a lifelong dream and career goal. To be a part of the Kitzbuehel inner circle is great. It was a very special moment. And to be a part of skiers past, present and future -- and to know how many kids will see my car in the future is a big thrill."
A huge crowd of local fans and media greeted Rahlves, who signed autographs and took in the entire scene. It was much more relaxing than the scene three weeks earlier when he shocked the Austrian fans by leading a non-Austrian podium with the first U.S. win since Buddy Werner won the downhill in 1959.
Local officials toasted the car with champagne and played the Star Spangled Banner, while a huge U.S. flag waved behind the gondola car. Rahlves watched as the car came around the track, and climbed in with girlfriend Michelle to take the inaugural ride together. After that Rahlves enjoyed a few runs of purely recreational skiing.
Rahlves continued to find his legacy in Kitzbuehel and was the toast of the town. There was no anonymity for the American ski star, as restaurants and hotels rolled out the red carpet for the return of the Hahnenkamm champion.
Kitzbuehel started the gondola tradition in 1996, establishing cars at that time for all living Hahnkamm champions in any of the disciplines. Other Americans who have cars include past combined champions Phil Mahre and Bob Cochran, as well as past slalom champ Chuck Ferries.
"It was a great honor to recognize Daron," said Georg Hechenberger of Bergbahn Kitzbuehel. "He is a great champion and I think he enjoyed the little ceremony and the chance to ski on our mountain."
There is no more storied race in skisport than the Hahnenkamm, which is rich in tradition. From the honored walk through the 'Strasse der Sieger' (tunnel of champions) to tending bar at the infamous Londoner, winning the Hahnenkamm is to most downhill ski racers more important than an Olympic medal. Rahlves was able to turn the victory this year in front of a huge throng of family and friends, including his own private cheering section from his home resort of Sugar Bowl in California.
Rahlves' time in Kitzbuehel was a much-welcomed break after a seven-week stint on the downhill circuit. It gave him a few days break before starting downhill training at nearby Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, and a chance to reflect back on the most important day of his life, Jan. 25, 2003, when he became a Hahnenkamm champion.