Life after the U.S. Ski Team
This is not a story about has-beens. There are no past-dwellers here, no cursed souls living their lives on rewind.
And maybe that comes as a shock.
Maybe, you were expecting that former members of the U.S. Ski Team would have it rough after retiring, just like other woeful pros. You assumed that life couldn’t possibly be as fulfilling when there were no Olympics to train for, no Champagne showers to look forward to, no Hannenkamm downhill to lose sleep over at night.
A hum-drum, 9-to-5, take-the-kids-to-school existence for the rest of us? Well, we’ve adjusted to it. But, getting someone whose played high stakes poker with their body for a living to worry about trivial “real world” things once they’ve cashed in their chips for good?
That’s a tough one.
With that being said, all three former local ski team members who were interviewed for this story were enjoying the blues and greens of life.
There was no pining, no mourning for glory days gone by. Yes, life on the U.S. Ski Team was amazing – the most challenging, rewarding, heart-pounding, white-knuckled existence they’d ever known.
But, it wasn’t the only life for which they had signed up. Their testimony is proof that after the cowbells have stopped clanging, and the FIS points have stopped accumulating, there are still podiums to conquer.
“Think about everyday you went to work with the job you have and not only did you risk losing your job, but you risk breaking your back or your leg or blowing out your knee or being paralyzed for the rest of your life,” says Chad Fleischer, a 10-year U.S. Alpine Team veteran from Vail who retired last fall. “There’s absolutely no real risk involved in other jobs. As a ski racer, you live your whole life with the assumption of risk. I’m talking about real, bodily risk. That’s a much different scenario.”
Fleischer is alluding to the reality that former ski team members face once they’ve put aside their professional skiing careers.
Risk, whether it’s starting a new career or investing in a business venture, just doesn’t feel the same when you’re not cutting a turn at 80 mph or doing an inverted spin 50 feet up in the air.
“That’s the real challenge is somehow parlaying your talents as a skier into your talents as a business man or a member of the community,” says David Viele, a Battle Mountain alum, who competed on the U.S. Alpine team from 1993-1997. “That’s a tough deal. I think because skiing is such a difficult sport mentally, you do see a lot of people succeed. I know golf is tough, but you know, if you screw up with golf, you don’t break your leg.”
Fleischer offered a different perspective. While he did agree with Viele that former World Cup skiers were primed to succeed in post-ski team pursuits, given their stiffened mental make-up, that didn’t necessarily mean they were happy.
In his new trade as a skiing commentator for Outdoor Life Network, Fleischer said that he is excited about all of the opportunities ahead of him.
He is also enjoying the freedom of not having his life scheduled out 10 months ahead of time, of not being regimented to a stack of plane tickets and training schedules.
But, he says he knows others who don’t share his same ardor for life after their skiing careers have come to an end.
“I was talking to a friend of mine who I skied with on the team almost my whole career, Craig Thrasher,” says Fleischer. “We went to the ’94 Olympics together. We grew up ski racing together. He has a big restaurant that he owns with his wife in Minneapolis. We were talking about the risks involved, and he’s doing something right now that he can’t stand. He’s at a point where he dealt with risks every day he went down the mountain, running downhill. For him, you know, there is no real challenge in that sense, anymore. If he goes to work in his restaurant, he’s not going to get hurt, unless he slips and falls in bacon grease (laughing). It’s that ridiculous.”
The nastiest of falls
Thrasher’s story illustrates an obstacle that all high-profile athletes face in retirement, not just skiers. Trying to fill a void that was once satisfied by intense competition and high risk is a tricky pursuit – one that can lead to the deepest of emotional ruts.
In a study performed by Newsday on 1,425 former NFL players, 18 percent reported having severe emotional problems after retiring from football.
While other sports didn’t have concrete numbers like the Newsday survey, there is a pile of evidence to suggest that the emotional stress of leaving competition can be too much for some athletes.
One need look no further than the much-publicized plunges of former stars who have tarnished their legacies once their turn in the spotlight was over to see that life after (fill in the blank) can quickly go south.
Skiing itself does not have a Pete Rose or a Jason Williams, but that doesn’t mean it never will.
Rose admitted that he bet on baseball specifically because he was trying to get back some of the excitement that he missed from playing baseball.
“I never thought my career would end. I always thought I’d be like that guy from ‘Damn Yankees’ who plays baseball forever,” writes Rose in his new book “My Prison without Bars.” “There was just something about staring down a 95-mph fastball that I missed. I missed the feel of that lumber in my hands, the thrill of playing nine innings every day. I missed the head first slides and the competition. Hell, I missed the winning.”
In applying Rose’s words to former ski-teamers, what can possibly be more exciting that being on the U.S. Ski Team?
What can possibly match the thrill of running the fiercest downhill in the world in front of 100,000 drunken, shouting Austrians? What can possibly be more rewarding than screaming through a perfect moguls run to stand on the podium at Worlds?
According to Mike Friedberg, a U.S. Freestyle Team member from Boulder who trains in Vail and took a leave of absence from the team this year to focus on finishing a journalism degree at C.U., there is nothing that compares.
The secret he says, though, is not to search for that same excitement somewhere else. A World Cup skiing career can’t last forever, obviously, and once it is over, one shouldn’t try to live their life comparing their skiing successes to their academic or business successes.
“To be honest with you, I miss everything about it,” Friedberg says.” But, I always saw skiing as something you do before you do something else. I always looked at it as sports and recreation. I was able to make some money, but I always knew I was going to have to go back to school and eventually get a career.”
When it’s time to let go
Friedberg is officially still on the Freestyle C Team, but he intends to let team officials know soon that he doesn’t plan on coming back to contend for a spot on the B Team next season.
He has dominated this year in local competitions, winning two Mogul Mania events here in Vail, and is still in good physical shape. Still, even with the coaxing from his friends who are on the team, Friedberg says that his upcoming decision to retire officially is one with which he has come to terms and that he is ready to move on.
“Last year, I skied a full World Cup season and had good results and made almost every final that I skied in,” Friedberg says. “I think I came to the conclusion that I was a good World Cup skier, but not a great World Cup skier. The difference is Jeremy (Bloom), Travis (Mayer), Toby (Dawson). These are guys that can beat me. It just answered a lot of questions for me about where I stood and I felt really at peace with it.
“I was able to ski this whole World Cup season and consistently do well and be consistently in finals from the sixth to 12th position, but I didn’t feel as though I could win. It’s a disappointing conclusion to come to, feeling like I couldn’t win Worlds and the Olympics and things like this. But, at the same time, I don’t have regrets. I look back and take a lot of solace in the fact that I was able to give gold medalists a run for their money. I just didn’t feel that it was in the cards.”
Still, when Friedberg was given the decision at the end of last year either to retire or take a leave from the team, he chose the leave. In his heart, he says, he felt it was over, but there was still that little something in the back of his head – forged from years of dogged determination – telling him to not give up, never to quit.
Fleischer and Viele both fought the same type of battle, although injuries played a bigger role in their retirement decisions.
Still being around the team this year because of his job with OLN, Fleischer admits he began to consider making a comeback for the 2006 Olympics.
After a devastating right knee injury in January, 2002 in Wengen, Switzerland, forced him to miss the rest of the 2001-02 season as well as all of last year, Fleischer came to the decision to retire this fall when it became obvious that the knee was never going to be back to full strength.
Still, he fought the urge all year long that he could still be the Chad Fleischer of old, that his dreams of winning an Olympic downhill didn’t have to die hard.
“This winter, I was still in talks with Atomic and some of my ski-team coaches and my doctors about getting my knee back and making a comeback for the Olympics,” Fleischer says. “But, after being at the American Ski Classic, it really drove the point home that there is a time to quit, and the time for me to quit is now.
“I saw the likes of (Oklahoma All-American running back) Joe Washington, who was on my team. He was one of the best running backs in college history, and he said that for the most part that his pro career was made up of injuries, one after the other. And, he limits himself to six runs a year when he comes here. His doctor and his wife say that he shouldn’t even ski. For me, that’s how I feel when I ski. I feel like I’m 60 years old, because of my hip and my back and my knee. I just came to the realization that it was time for me to let it go.”
Viele is also one who fought the injury bug. After a knee injury in 1997 forced him to leave the team, he went on to finish his skiing career at Dartmouth and pick up back-to-back national titles in slalom.
He says he considered the possibility of trying to return to the team after his college career and attempt to pursue his Olympic dreams, but he said that his decision to retire was the right one.
A painful one, but still the right one.
“Obviously, I wish I could have been an Olympian. I certainly think I had a good enough hand. I think I had the talent,” Viele says. “A lot of the guys who make it into the Olympics, it’s a combination of talent and luck. Do I think I have what Bode Miller has? Absolutely not. I think the real value that I learned from skiing was self-awareness, self-evaluation. How am I doing? What do I have to do to get to the next level? Is that a possibility.
“At the end of the day, I would have loved to be an Olympian. Would I pass up the opportunities that I’ve had? Dartmouth, to borrow some Norman Maclean, ‘was a revelation.’ The people I met there, I can’t even begin to articulate how many exceptional people I met there and how big of an influence they’ve had on my life. I wouldn’t ever want to go back in time and change things, but you always wonder what might have been. I’m pretty happy with the way things have ended up, though.
Old ski racers never die
The one thing that is certain in the afterlife of all ski racers is that there will never be life without skiing. At the American Ski Classic in March, Billy Kidd, winner of the silver medal in slalom at the 1964 Olympics, made the remark that, “Old ski racers never die.”
Such is true for Viele, Friedberg and Fleischer.
Viele, a construction manager here in Vail, enjoys racing in both the Vail and Beaver Creek Town Race Series and is an avid supporter of the U.S. Ski Team.
“I keep up with it, probably more so than I did when I was a part of it,” Viele says. “I don’t know if that’s some kind of separation anxiety or what. As far as participating, you know, you spend so much of your life focused on that one goal. It’s hard to turn off the valve on it. The town race series is a good outlet for me. As strangely competitive as it gets, it’s still fun.”
Fleischer still skis recreationally and will continue to compete in celebrity events such as the Ski Classic, which he won this year.
He says that no matter where his new career takes him, promoting skiing and participating in the sport will always be one of his No. 1 priorities.
“I mean, there’s some people that leave the sport really bitter,” Fleischer says. “And, yeah, I didn’t leave the sport on my terms. But then again, skiing is everything to me. It’s my life, my essence. I’ll forever be a skier.”
Friedberg says that one of the things he is enjoying the most with his newfound free time is coaching freestyle at Ski and Snowboard Club Vail and the C.U. Freestyle Team. He also has no plans to stop competing in Colorado events either, because he says he is enjoying, “kicking a little ass” at a lower level.
“It will always be really important to me,” says Friedberg. “I love coaching Ski Club Vail and I also coach the C.U. Ski Team part-time. It’s fun to coach kids and see them go through similar things. I see myself in a lot of the kids from Vail. When you’re first done, you kind of feel like you’re burnt on skiing and all that. But just this winter, going skiing with my parents and coaching and just skiing for fun and with friends, you kind of rediscover skiing again.”