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 Kitzbuhel,
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
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 jumping (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
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.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER
COLOR PHOTO: HOWARD SCHATZ/ATHLETE
COLOR PHOTO: JEFF HAYNES/AFP World Cup leader Eberharter (left) and five-time Olympic medalist Aamodt will give Rahlves a run for his money.
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY [See caption above]
When Rahlves isn't skiing fast, he's doing something else fast.
His days are often deliciously perilous.
When Rahlves races he takes tighter, riskier lines, creating
speed where others simply survive.