Before January 31, 2001, it was practically unheard of for alpine ski racing to make the front page of The New York Times; the Americans just didn’t leave that much to write home about. But there he was on A1, fearless Californian downhiller Daron Rahlves, taking a gold medal at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in St. Anton, Austria.
“U.S. Skier Wins in Upset,” it said beneath a picture of the grinning golden boy. The item was a reefer, which in Times terminology means a small photo or paragraph up front referring readers to a feature story deeper in the newspaper. The caption read, “In a rare victory for American men, Daron Rahlves won the super-G race at the alpine world championships in Austria.”
It was shocking enough that a slight 27-year-old from Truckee had snatched the win from Austrian heavyweights Hermann Maier and Stephan Eberharter, crowd favorites at the peak of their powers. The U.S. Ski Team wasn’t considered a factor at the championships, which had seen just four American men win medals in the previous 30 years. The women had done only a little bit better.
But it was a watershed moment for the U.S. Ski Team, the start of a long renaissance that has been most visible at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, a race series that takes place every other February in odd-numbered years.
Since Rahlves’s stunning win at St. Anton, American ski racers have won 13 world championship titles, along with another 19 silver and bronze medals. Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller have led the way, but no fewer than 10 different men and women have followed Rahlves to the podium, among them athletes born as far apart as 1972 (Erik Schlopy) and 1996 (Mikaela Shiffrin).
Maybe it has something to do with the giant cash bonuses ski companies dispense to champions. Maybe it has something to do with the courses, which are generally steeper and scarier than those at the Olympics. Or maybe there’s just something about the American skiers, long underappreciated at home, stepping things up for the big occasion when NBC turns its cameras their way.
And the world championships are a big occasion. Last February’s edition at Beaver Creek saw 500 athletes from 68 nations compete, their performances broadcast around the world in more than 70 live television hours. Some 125,000 spectators trekked to the finish-line viewing platforms at the redesigned Red Tail Camp, while another 16,000 attended nightly awards ceremonies in Vail that doubled as concerts featuring the likes of CeeLo Green, O.A.R., and Barenaked Ladies.
With Tiger Woods on hand to support Vonn, and Miller’s spectacular and bloody crash dominating the highlight reels, there was plenty of drama for the American media to chew on. The Times could still run reefers, but this was Colorado in 2015, when the word had reverted to its usual meaning.
First staged in 1931, the FIS championships predate alpine skiing’s inclusion in the Winter Games by nearly two decades. Though smaller than the Olympics, they offer a better show for the spectator; the downhill courses are usually more challenging, and there are no distractions like figure skating and curling. The whole event is staged from a single ski town, with fans and athletes often occupying the same intimate hotels.
It’s traditional for the bigger national teams to rent out whole restaurants for the duration of the two-week event as gathering places for team sponsors and party venues in case one of their athletes wins a medal. Any determined fan can find a way into the Austria Haus or Chez France and toast the newest champion.
Up on the mountains, the FIS puts fewer barriers than the IOC does between the athletes and their fans. You can usually find a perch alongside a world championship course to watch the race, whereas at Sochi, for instance, the ski areas were closed to the public and the ridges surrounding the race venue were patrolled by gun-toting soldiers in winter camouflage.
Like the Games, the championships are an 11-race series spread over two weeks. Each day sees men’s or women’s installments of super G, downhill, the super combined, GS, or slalom. There’s also the Nations Team Event, where athletes race head-to-head on parallel courses.
As in the Olympics, national teams can enter no more than four skiers for each race (on the World Cup tour, the best teams can enter 10 or more athletes per race). An exception is made for the reigning champion; win an event at the worlds and your start position in that discipline, next time around, doesn’t cost your nation a quota spot.
Since Ted Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin won the men’s GS and women’s slalom February in Beaver Creek, the U.S. team will have five starters in each of those disciplines when the next championships roll around, February 6 to 19, 2017, in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Statistically speaking, that might be your best chance to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the awards plaza, something no American newspaper will ever call an “upset” again.
Nate Vinton is a frequent Skiing contributor and the author of The Fall Line, the definitive book about World Cup racing. He writes for the New York Daily News.