Coming at You
With a win in Austria, Damn Rahlves gives the U.S. hope on the slopes
Surely Daron Rahlves had just seen an apparition, or at least a malfunctioning scoreboard. His head swiveled as he skidded to a stop after his Super G run at the World Alpine Championships in St. Anton, Austria, on Jan. 30. Rahlves stared in disbelief at his time of 1:21.46, the fastest of the competition. "I kept waiting for them to fix the 1 by my name," the 27-year-old Californian would say later. It took a vanquished king to convince Rahlves he had won. On his home snow, world and Olympic champ Hermann Maier walked over and told Rahlves, "You have done me better." Rahlves's triumph left silver and bronze to Austria's Stephan Eberharter and Maier, respectively.
In a place where outsiders don't often upset the applecart, Rahlves had waltzed in and baked himself a strudel. "Ah, sweet run," Rahlves said soon after the race. "I just want to drink it in."
So he did. First he walked to the team's hotel, where a smattering of young American women chanting his name ("DA-ron") were drowned out by dozens of local fr�uleins ("da-RON"). Later he headed down Dorfstrasse, the town's main street. Passing his name, which had been carved into an ice sculpture, he entered Bobo's, an American-themed restaurant, to the strains of Queen's We Are the Champions. There he served as celebrity bartender, resisting most requests for toasts and trying a new event, the across-bar champagne squirt into any mouth that opened.
Rahlves even took a call from the president that evening. No, not the new one in Washington, the one in Vienna. "Take it easy on our skiers," implored Heir Pr�sident, Thomas Klestil, who needn't have worried. The hosts won 11 medals in St. Anton; no other team won more than three. Austria hasn't known dominance like this since the heyday of the Hapsburgs.
Rahlves's dynamic Super G run included a wobble on a sharp right-hand turn two thirds of the way down the course. In the downhill eight days later, on Feb. 7, he almost lost a ski but still finished fifth. He was the brightest spot in the U.S. team's performance.
At only 5'9" and 175 pounds, Rahlves is ill-built for his sport's speed events, which favor bulky, thick-legged racers. He is a technician who takes early entrances into turns, squares himself quickly and cuts a tight line to beat the power skiers who glide faster on the flats. Yet he has the unmistakable spirit of a downhiller. His father, Dennis, a 54-year-old rodeo competitor, proudly recalls his son's riding a motorcycle on his own at age eight.
At 19 Daron became a world champion in jet skiing (that's on water, not on snow). He stall has a plate in his left shoulder from a broken collarbone he suffered on a dirt bike at 23. Six weeks ago on the Italian Autostrada, he rolled his car, which flipped four times and landed in a ditch. Rahlves emerged with only bruises, but his passenger, girlfriend Michelle Shetler, broke her left arm in four places, knocking her out of competition on the pro snowboard circuit.
Rahlves's two career World Cup wins (both in downhill races last winter) made him a 25-to-1 shot at the local Cash Bet kiosk to win the Super G at St. Anton. By contrast Maier, who was on the cover of eight magazines and five newspapers at a nearby newsstand, was under constant media scrutiny. "This week it is too hard to breathe," Maier said after winning a silver in the downhill, his only other medal.
"I wouldn't want Hermann's life," said Rahlves. "If you're too busy meeting expectations, you might miss the party."