At first glance, this year's Weekend at Kitzbuhel 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
Kitzbuhel last year," said U.S. 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 Kitzbuhel 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 Kitzbuhel Super G. His return to the
top three of the World Cup standings has made him this season's
sentimental darling. At Kitzbuhel 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 Kitzbuhel
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
Kitzbuhel 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,
When Rahlves heard, he fired back. "So it's going to keep going?"
he said. "I'm going to keep crushing him then." --S.L. Price
old." --HOOKED, PAGE 24