Fiala, Fleischer understand perils of racing for U.S.
Wednesday morning, Frisco resident Jakub Fiala rode his new bicycle down the sidewalk on Main Street. He paused behind a crowd, found a lane and quietly passed a lady sipping a liter of coffee.
The 28-year-old rode off on an Electra Rat Rod – black, old school and complete with flames on the tires and dice dangling from the seat. Nobody stopped to ask him questions. Nobody even whispered to their neighbor, “There goes Fiala. He’s fast as hell.”
As the newest member to the A Team, the elite level of the U.S. Ski Team, Fiala’s face would get him stopped on every street in Austria and half the streets in Switzerland. Since the years learning technique with Team Breck, he’s had to learn the ski business in America, where he’s one of a thousand unknown Olympians.
Letters from Fleischer
Chad Fleischer, meanwhile, was sitting in Vail with a rebuilt right knee and thinking about his first race in two years. Lake Louise in late November will be Fleischer’s first appearance on the World Cup since Jan. 10, 2002, when he tore all the ligaments and tendons in his right knee and shattered his kneecap during a training run.
“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” Fleischer said. “I was most nervous to see where I was in New Zealand (where the U.S. Team trained last month). But it went really well. Things are good.”
While Fleischer exceeded all expectations at the camp, his recovery will be based on his performance. It’s the only thing these athletes are judged by, which puts the pressure on every skier – even Bode Miller – to produce good results every week.
See, Fleischer’s nearing the magic age of 32 and will end his career at the 2006 Olympics, the only reason he returned to the sport. He’ll be 36, about five years older than the average World Cup ski racer, but he already has two national downhill titles.
Last year, as Fiala climbed up the rankings to solidify his spot on the team, Fleischer was e-mailing him three times a week.
“Jake and I are perfect examples,” Fleischer said, “that on this team, you always have to be earning your keep.”
On, then off, then on
This year will be Fiala’s sixth as a member of the team and first on the top-tier squad. For the first time, his expenses, including travel and insurance, are paid. He won’t worry about sponsors, like Nordica, Atomic and Smith, dropping him.
Last year, Fiala competed on the B Team, and coach Phil McNichol gave him a deadline.
“At some point, we have to say, “You have to either perform or move out of the way and let us spend resources on somebody else,'” McNichol said. “He was obviously capable. Now it’s time to play and we can’t just carry him on the bench.”
In fact, McNichol removed him from the team.
“I spent about four days wondering what was going on,” Fiala said. “I had made all the criteria, so they couldn’t kick me off.”
So, he raced on the team by paying thousands for his own expenses. After entering the second World Cup event of the season in Beaver Creek, Fiala qualified 27th in the downhill, placed 23rd and watched Daron Rahlves, Marco Sullivan and Bode Miller land in the top-10. The Americans were announcing their arrival to the world, while Fiala was announcing his arrival to the team brass.
“Now, I don’t feel like I have to prove myself to the people in the office,” Fiala said. “The tough part is the money aspect. Being top-30 in two events and struggling to make ends meet is tough. If skiing was bigger here, it wouldn’t be as tough.”
Out of Battle Mountain High School and Ski Club Vail, Fleischer passed up a full scholarship at any college of his choosing to chase the national team.
“My dad cut me off. He told me I was an idiot,” Fleischer said. “Now, he’s my biggest fan. But, unless your parents are loaded, you can’t afford it. It’s an example of what these kids coming up have to deal with.”
Money, money, money
While guys like Miller can make over a million dollars a season on sponsorships, Fiala’s one of many without a sponsor. Instead, he helps log trees in the summer and runs a fundraiser in November at Barkley’s.
Last year, Miller and the crew showed up to support Fiala.
“It’s tough to keep work,” Fiala said. “I’m still gone eight and a half months out of the year.”
As his popularity and career expand, he’s forced to learn the ski-racing business, something Fleischer learned the hard way.
“It’s the mistake I made,” Fleischer said. “When people join the team, they think you automatically ski faster and you have the best coaches. For the most part, the coaches are mediocre and the attention you get is 10 percent of what you got as a stud with your home program.
“(Making the team) really doesn’t mean much,” he added. “It means you get a free jacket. If you’re not willing to put in the effort, you might as well ski in college.”
The lure of college has drawn many athletes away from the less than lucrative national program, something that rarely happens in Austria. Once in the ski racing track, the allure of fame, money and a promising future after racing keeps young Austrians in their program while, in America, the post-racing options aren’t so numerous.
Few ways exist in America to make money ski racing, unless you’re Miller or Picabo Street, who won events and were charismatic enough to make millions. Sponsorships are tough. The U.S. Team takes all the money from sponsors, like Chevy, for displaying logos on its uniforms. But, the athletes are allowed to sell the spot on the center of the helmet. Rahlves, for instance, does all his interviews donning a Red Bull insignia.
“Last year was my first year with an agent,” Fiala said. “I tried to do it on my own, but people looked at the sponsorship as a way to support me. The agent sells it as a business opportunity.”
A podium performance at the Olympics in 2006 could boost him to 100 times what he’s worth now. So, if he signs too long of a contract this year, he could be trapped and lose money.
Aside from racing, Fleischer started a pizza place in Vail and has his fingers in real estate development. The extra money has allowed him to leave sponsorship worries behind and concentrate on racing, his first real job.
“It’s a business. You have to treat it like a business,” said Fleischer, known for his leopard-spotted hair. “You have to be a personality in the sport to get you noticed. That’s why Bode’s made so much money. He’s wild and outspoken. The media tends to take notice. I’ve also been lucky to be on the good side of that.”
The smallest window
Austrian Stephan Eberharter won the World Cup overall last season, and turned 34 in the process. But long before, he had been given up on and abused by the Austrian public.
He trailed Hermann Maier in every event every year, but, after Maier hurt himself in a motorcycle accident, Eberharter became the best in the world. Before the races in Beaver Creek last December, Eberharter mentioned that, had Meier not become injured, his window for world dominance would never have been opened.
Fiala, born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, wants the grand salami of ski racing –Kitzbuehel .
Kitzbuehel is the model for what the American ski racing scene is not; more than 100,000 people line the course celebrating the world’s best racers on the world’s toughest downhill course. It’s the Super Bowl with cowbells.
And Rahlves won it last year.
“When Daron won, he couldn’t even walk down the street,” Fiala said. “After a while, that could be annoying. I get noticed over there and never in Frisco. I haven’t been at the tip-top, but it’d be fun to get that exposure.”
But that kind of thinking is a long way away from surviving the ever-present threat of being cut. Even McNichol hates his predicament – to give veteran athletes a shot at the top, or groom young talent for their open window.
“It’s so competitive on the team,” McNichol said. “You really have to identify yourself as one of the few. It takes personal sacrifice and financial sacrifice and, “boom’, you’re on the team.”
Once on the team, the only way to stay is to perform.
“You have to realize it’s go-time,” McNichol continued. “It’s quite a process to bang into that upper end. That’s where we run into our biggest obstacles. Maybe there’s a guy you can’t get to now who, in five years, would be better. If these guys don’t show their colors early on, we get crunched on our financial resources. All the guys deserve to be there and they’re performing. We need both. That’s basically why (we base selections on performance). We have to keep our garden cleaned up so the good vegetables grow.”
Ryan Slabaugh can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 257, or at email@example.com.