At first glance, this year's Weekend at Kitzbühel delivered the usual goods: grown men cavorting in lederhosen, empty bottles littering the streets, and the jarring tone of an event that's both a sport!s Super Bowl and a nation's Mardi Gras. The first official ski race, last Friday's Super G, ended with the top three finishers taking the podium to a serenade, piped over the public address system, that declared, "I just want to get drunk here with you...." Some 50,000 beered-up Austrians heeded the call, and Saturday night turned into the usual bacchanal that even competitors can't resist. "I was sick for three weeks after Kitzbühel last year," said US. downhiller Daron Rahlves. "I couldn't speak. I couldn't even breathe."
But once the hangover lifted, it was clear that little about this year's Hahnenkamm was typical. Taking on the vaunted Austrians at their hallowed home mountain, Rahlves, who had vowed to curtail his partying, dominated Kitzbühel as no other American had. The Hahnenkamm isn't just a kegger; it's the most dangerous, most traditional, most coveted prize in skiing. A win there means instant stardom; a display like Rahlves's—taking down Austrian superhero Hermann Maier on his favorite course, matching the great skier of this generation word for nasty word—has unparalleled potential: to galvanize U.S. skiing, to jump-start a slogging World Cup season, to spark a rivalry in a sport that desperately needs one.
"Sore loser" Rahlves called Maier on Saturday, and right or wrong, it sounded shocking. A year ago Maier sealed his comeback from a motorcycle accident that nearly cost him his right leg with an emotional win in the Kitzbühel Super G. His return to the top three of the World Cup standings has made him this season's sentimental darling. At Kitzbiihel the crowds roared for "Der Herminator," whom they had helped vote, in a newspaper poll, the second-most-important Austrian ever, after Mozart. Rahlves alone seemed intent on shoving Maier aside. Few would've bet on him; though he has emerged over the last two years as the most consistent downhiller in U.S. history, Rahlves, 30, lacked mystique and Olympic gilding. The colorful, hard-charging Bode Miller is everybody's idea of the next great American skier.
But with the fourth-ranked Miller struggling, Rahlves came to Austria supremely primed. He edged Maier to take third in Thursday's makeup downhill, handed Maier his first-ever Kitzbühel loss—by .03 of a second—in the Super G, then took second in Saturday's downhill. Miller won Sunday's combined after taking fourth in the slalom, but Rahlves's podium sweep was a U.S. first. "A brilliant, phenomenal performance," says U.S. Ski Association president Bill Marolt.
And a classic case of payback. Last year Rahlves won the Kitzbühel downhill, but on a course shortened by fog and disparaged ever since by the Austrians. The insults never stopped: On Thursday downhill winner Lasse Kjus of Norway sat next to Rahlves and called last year's course "Mickey Mouse." After Friday's Super G, Maier told Rahlves he lost only because "I made a mistake" and then dismissed last year's race as "not the real downhill" in his press conference.
"I'll just make them eat their words tomorrow," Rahlves said then. He almost did Rahlves skied a near-perfect line, blitzing past Kjus, Maier and a passel of Austrians to take the lead with a time of 1:56.69. At the finish he threw his arms up and grinned at the crowd. His joy lasted five minutes, because Stephan Eberharter, Austria's last hope, hurtled down the hill, as he put it, "on fire" and scorched Rahlves's mark, winning in 1:55.48. Rahlves greeted Eberharter, who, he says, always shows him respect, with a hug.
Maier is a different case. Rahlves's open disdain is another subtle sign that the Herminator's aura is fading. His comeback remains remarkable; still lacking 30% feeling in his right leg, the 31-year-old won races in Lake Louise and Beaver Creek. But no one—especially not Maier—considers him the dominator he once was. And his will is wavering. "I'm feeling that I've reached my goal," he says. "It's hard to create a new goal and keep the motivation. The comeback was maybe too easy?
His teammates and coaches say that Maier is less arrogant now, but traces remain. Asked Saturday whether Rahlves's performance here had proved anything to him, Maier laughed and said, "No, nothing."
When Rahlves heard, he fired back "So it's going to keep going?" he said. "I'm going to keep crashing him then."