It's been a wild ride so far, dating back to that '96 season when you blew away the field at the junior nationals on the first K2 Four shaped skis, skis ostensibly designed for recreational skiing. Your early successes on those American-made skis shocked stodgy European ski makers (and racers, too) and ultimately turned the world on to shaped skis. And you've been doing it your way ever since.
You had strong early World Cup results despite a style that has been described, charitably, as "rugged"—and less charitably as "painful to watch." Phil Mahre and your coaches admit to grimacing while watching you ski, but you remind them that there is no French judge in ski racing—it's only the clock that counts.
In the November 2000 issue of SKI, we chronicled your roots, growing up with '60s parents and without plumbing in the northern woods of New Hampshire, skiing at Cannon Mountain at age 3, stomping Misty 720s as a snowboarder. We declared you the "Great Hippie Hope," and you liked the title, though you struggled mightily through the next season, skiing more like a hippie than a hope. But you kept doing it your way.
You went outside the U.S. Ski Team to rent a house in Austria with your teammate and friend Erik Schlopy, so you'd be closer to the center of the ski racing universe. You trained with the fastest Austrians, you switched to Austrian-made skis and soon you were shifting into a fifth gear that no one else could find, much less maintain. And you often could not maintain it, such as at the 2001 World Alpine Championships, where you crashed and lost a good medal chance as well as some knee ligaments. You underwent a radical knee rehab program, without surgery, under the watchful eye of Dr. Richard Steadman, and you entered the 2002 season in great shape and stronger than ever.
It all came together in December in Val d'Isere, where you won a World Cup GS, the first American to accomplish the feat since Ronald Reagan was a first-term president and War was Cold. You then delivered three slalom wins and became a populist hero in Europe before furthering the cause with an incredible second run slalom comeback to win the silver medal in the Olympic combined at Snowbasin last week.
It's been a heady winter, for sure. Gold medalist Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who is merely the most successful World Championship and Olympic skier in history, called your skiing "revolutionary" and compared you to Alberto Tomba. You did, after all, beat Aamodt by 2.2 seconds in a single slalom run. But take it all with a grain of salt...and remember these numbers as you plot your long and successful career.
Twenty-three. That's how many more World Cup races you'll need to win before tying Phil Mahre for the American record. Give yourself four or six more seasons to do it. Factor in the number three for good measure: That's how many times Phil won the overall World Cup title, the true barometer of success in ski racing and an attainable goal for a multi-event talent such as yourself.
How about 82? That's the number of additional World Cups you'll need to win to catch Ingemar Stenmark, the all-time record holder. It's an unlikely feat with World Cup fields so deep these days, but it will lend perspective to your pursuits.
On Thursday you race the Olympic GS as a solid medal contender and on Saturday you are the favorite in the slalom. Remind yourself again that the U.S. Ski Team has developed an unhealthy relationship with the quadrennial Games. Because the Olympic fortnight is the only time that the general public tunes in to ski competition, we place much too much emphasis on the results of what are often crap shoots. You know better than to be pulled that way, to fall into the trap that has snared some of your teammates.
You also know that when you are back in your rented house outside Innsbruck that the hard-core locals will be at least as impressed with your World Cup win at Schladming, under the lights in front of 50,000 fans, as with an Olympic medal.
So just keep doing it your way. And toss in one more number: two. That's how many Olympic medals Phil Mahre won in his career. If you don't sweat it, you'll achieve that mark too. Maybe even here in Utah.