This we know about Daron Rahlves: He is the most accomplished American downhill racer of all time. A competitive streak runs so deep in his system that it’s like a thread spun directly into his chromosomal helix.
But can that explain why a 36-year-old father of 2-year-old twins would subject himself to the often violent rigors of ski cross, the newest sport—some would say “blood sport”—on this winter’s Olympic agenda? He already has a hall-of-fame résumé. What else is there to prove?
Ski cross is part racing, part jousting and part extreme cage-fighting, and when things go wrong—as they often do, with four guys knocking heads at close quarters and at high speeds—people get hurt. Yet for Rahlves, ski cross represents perhaps one last chance to succeed in the single racing arena where he has fallen flat: the Olympics. In seven races, he’s never finished better than seventh.
Racing fans might think they recall Rahlves retiring in 2006 after a gloried career in which he won 12 World Cups, one World Championship and seven national titles. They would be mistaken. Rahlves insists he never retired but instead went into “transition.”
That transition might include all the appearances of retirement: parenting, dabbling in commercial real estate and victory-lap stuff like starring in ski movies and promoting sponsors. But Rahlves never relinquished that genetic exigency to compete. He believes, for example, that if rules could be bent to allow an officially “retired” racer to enter, say, just the World Cup downhill held annually at Beaver Creek, Colo., “I still could kick some ass.” And he probably could.
He has continued ass-kicking in motocross and ski cross, in which he won a gold medal at the 2008 X Games. And he retains a competitive, young-blood level of fitness. His face might betray a few creases not there a decade ago, but his body still has the ironclad solidity of a walking, blond wood-burning stove.
Even so, it might seem a bit quixotic—even crazy—for a guy approaching middle age to throw his body into the ski-cross grinder. But look who’s there as his teammate: fellow thirty-something parent and former U.S. teammate Casey Puckett, a ski cross veteran who finished fourth in the 2009 World Cup standings.
The relative brevity of the ski cross season is one reason guys with pater-familias responsibilities can even consider it. “The fact that the season is only three months helps,” says the 37-year-old Puckett. “That leaves nine months to spend a lot of love on my daughters.” It’s nothing like the almost year-round training and racing regimen of a World Cup racer.