Going for Gold
We probably see him every morning on our way to work. Blue exhaust sputters from his pickup truck tailpipe, he waits at the stoplight, he sips his coffee, and then he’s gone. Unless you recognize his face, there’s really nothing that would outwardly indicate that Mike Brown is one of the great ski racers to ever come out of this valley. And in a nation that hardly recognizes its current alpine stars, there’s hardly room to remember a man whose skiing accomplishments are 15 years past.But behind Brown’s everyday countenance is the true story of World Cup ski racing. While the media pundits focus on the winners of the Dec. 7-8 World Cup downhill and super-G races at Beaver Creek (see story page 11), Brown will be out of the camera’s eye, helping maintain the course and organize the event. Brown knows all too well that for every champion drinking the milk of victory in the winner’s circle, there are a hundred or more in the background, swallowing the tonic of injury, disappointment and defeat.Brown’s story, like all our valley’s ski racing stories, has its roots at Ski Club Vail, where he trained seven days a week during the winter as a youth in the 1970s, developing his body and mind around the principles of one goal: to become one of the best alpine skiers in the world. The U.S. Ski Team took notice in 1980, and Brown would forego college to begin a nine-year tenure as a speed-event specialist for the United States. After giving 27 years of his life entirely to ski racing, a crash in St. Anton, Austria, in December of 1989 forced him out of the sport of ski racing forever.Left well short of his childhood dreams, Brown was faced with the task of entirely re-inventing himself.”It doesn’t leave you with an awful lot,” he says. “After nine years, that is what you are, who you are everything about you is skiing. So suddenly to take that element away it’s like, ‘what am I now?'”The luck of the drawIt is a numbers game simple math. Each World Cup race has 50 to 70 racers, and only three can reach the podium. Of the thousands of skiers trying to attain world dominance, only one man and one woman are named overall World Cup champions each year. The chances of becoming a World Cup star are astronomical especially for American racers, who are up against the historical legacies of European nations that cultivate a national culture around ski racing. In Austria, most top young athletes want to be ski racers; in America, most top young athletes want to play football.To be a great ski racer takes talent, strength, and a mind for the game. But it also takes luck. Skiing at 80 mph for a living has its side effects, and injury keeps many racers from every having the chance to unleash their best effort during World Cup competition.Vail’s Tiffany Hoversten was only a junior in high school at Vail Mountain School when she was invited to join the U.S. Ski Team. After graduating, Hoversten decided to leave school behind and join the World Cup tour, but the remaining three years of her skiing career were spent recovering from knee injuries. After blowing all four ligaments in her right knee after only one World Cup race, Hoversten went through the excruciating recovery process only to be injured again almost immediately after her comeback.”It was a difficult decision, because ski racing had been such a big part of my life,” she says. “But I had to look at it long term … I want to be able to ride my bike and hike up a mountain when I’m 50, and the rate I was going I was going to have to have a knee replacement at age 25.”Brown can certainly sympathize. He suffered two compressed vertebrae in his back during his St. Anton crash, and it has left him with lingering nerve damage in his leg.At 23, Hoversten is now enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and she says she’s happy with her decision to stay healthy and go to school.Mountain valuesVail Mountain School’s Peter Abusi has been headmaster to numerous highly ranked skiing athletes since the 1960s. As part of their duties, his staff makes extra efforts to come in early, or on weekends, to help skiers make up for time lost on the road to skiing.More than any other high school sport, skiing requires traveling to far away destinations to take part in competitions. Students like Hoversten, who reach the uppermost levels of competition at an early age, are bound to miss more than half of their winter classes in order to stay competitive.”I don’t see it as a negative where they’re missing out on something in order to compete at a high level,” Abusi says. “They learn how to balance priority, and maybe develop a set of skills earlier on in life for example, there’s discipline, managing their travel, and getting re-acclimated as they balance course work and competing on the road.”While some racers miss the opportunity to have a college education, they are quick to point out how much they gain by competing on the international level.”I don’t really have a social life, or all that many friends, because it’s hard to stay in touch when you’re out of the country that often,” admits U.S. Ski Team member Lindsey Kildow, who already has one Olympics under her belt at the age of 18. “But I get to see the world, and travel in ways I never could if I wasn’t skiing, and I really like how things have gone so far. I couldn’t be happier.”U.S. Ski Team member Sarah Schleper of Vail agrees.”There is some sacrifice, with training and not being able to party sometimes when everyone is out,” she says. “I have to focus on training, and it can be hard to motivate. But I couldn’t have picked a better path, traveling the world, living in Austria and learning a second language, and being able to go all around the world and ski every day you couldn’t ask for a better job.”No other wayAs Brown makes his way through his daily work as a stone mason, he thinks fondly of his time as a ski racer. His time on the mountain left him with a few physical reminders of the demanding nature of the sport, but he also says it left him with memories that he will cherish forever and a kind of self-confidence that’s valuable in the everyday world.”A lot of those (negative) thoughts are what you have to go through, but what happens is you look back on the things that were positive about it, and I have absolutely no regrets about attacking it, and going after it,” he says.Throughout the skiing world are examples of racers who have learned their way of life from the sport, and they take that way of life with them into other fields. Brown, Schleper, and Kildow all agree that skiing, more than anything else, will help them tackle any of the many challenges they will face in their lives and none of them would have done it any other way.