Pick up a newspaper and read about what our sports heroes are up to these days. The baseball player is holding out for more money and doesn’t like his teammates. The basketball player tossed a fan through a plate glass window. The football coach flipped off the hometown fans. In major sports today, where 21-year-old kids sign $100 million contracts and whine if they don’t get their way, the players have serious attitudes¿and problems. n Contrast that atmosphere to the scene last spring at Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C., where SKI gathered 10 of the greatest skiers in North America for a week of skiing and talking about the past, present and future of our sport. My math revealed that this roomful of skiers, which we dubbed the Gold Medal Roundtable, had won 92 World Cup events, three Olympic golds and two silvers, a World Alpine Championship gold, two World Extreme Championships, a U.S. Extreme Championship, a Canadian Freeskiing Championship and even a Big Air title at the U.S. Freeskiing Championships. These world-class athletes were also humble, friendly, honest and a hell of a lot of fun to be around¿the antithesis of the 21st century professional athlete.
Tamara McKinney, who collected 18 World Cup races in her stellar career, could advise the U.S. Ski Team on a lot of things, particularly the mental side of competing. But in doing so, she always chooses her words carefully and respectfully. Donna Weinbrecht has won 46 World Cup mogul events and an Olympic gold medal. But because freestyle has struggled for global recognition, she never received financial rewards equal to those of her colleagues on the alpine team. Rather than dwell on that disappointment, Donna prefers to concentrate on the many successes of her career.
Chad Fleischer, the U.S. Ski Team’s brightest star, fought through injuries and disappointments for six years before landing on the World Cup podium in last year’s season finale. Beneath that snow leopard hairdo is an athlete with the perspective and strength to manage his own career. He knows how to deal with the politics of the U.S. Ski Team and how to conduct himself in public. And he still laughs about his first coach, who chastised him before his race debut because Chad had the audacity to check out a herd of elk across the valley. While many coaches don’t have the ability to stop and smell the flowers, Chad does.
Even alleged bad boy Brad Holmes, hiding behind a bodyful of tattoos, is just a ski bum at heart¿and the wittiest of the bunch. How did you end up with all those tattoos, we asked? “I told my dad I was thinking about getting one,” deadpans Brad. “He said, ‘If you ever get a tattoo, I’ll disown you.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll be right back.'”
Skiing may not boast multi-million dollar contracts and mainstream exposure. But these athletes represent what’s good and fun about sports. As Phil Mahre put it, “You have to have an ego to be a champion. You just don’t need to show it all the time.” Amen.