The Downhill Racer


I am a bitter woman.

SKI finally does the Robert Redford interview, and I am totally out of the loop. Nevermind that from the time I scored the movie posters for “The Sting” and “The Electric Horseman” from the Squaw Valley Theater I’ve had an obsession with meeting him.

During my ski racing years, the prospect of running in to him didn’t seem much of a stretch. He might have moseyed up the road from Sundance to check out a World Cup in Park City. I heard he might be at a Salt Lake City U.S. Ski Team fundraising ball, and immediately volunteered to miss a day of training camp to attend. In the end neither of us went, so I considered it a bona fide near miss. I’ve even trawled Park City during the Sundance Film Festival. But it’s just never panned out. Finally, in what should have been my perfect opportunity, SKI gives someone else the job. (Editor’s Note: That would be John Fry, whose interview with Redford is in this issue.)

As a consolation, I rented “Downhill Racer.” I had seen the 1969 film several times as a youngster in the theater and on TV, but never after actually being a downhill racer myself. This time, in addition to getting my Redford fix, I realized for the first time how accurately the film portrays downhill, as a lifestyle and a sport.

I watched the movie with, among others, my nephew Jack. At 4 years old, Jack is roughly the same age I was when I first saw the film. After intently watching the opening 10 minutes, his first question was, “Does everybody go to the hospital?” The sad truth, I admitted to Jack, is that, yes, eventually most downhillers do wind up there. That particular aspect of the movie brought back some ugly memories of bad wrecks, strange hospitals and long recoveries, all part of the downhill life cycle.

Fittingly, it is a crash that creates the opportunity for Redford’s character—Dave Chappelet a.k.a. Downhill Racer—to make his European downhill debut. Chappelet’s arrival in Europe brought back a flood of memories from my rookiedom. Touching down in Europe with the team is a pretty simple affair—everyone meets at baggage claim, gets in the van and takes off. But when you arrive alone, it’s more like a treasure hunt. Your only clues are a hotel name and some random numbers that are supposed to provide contact with that mystery hotel by way of equally mysterious European telephones.

After staying up all night on the plane, you—with duffel bags and six pairs of skis—have to find your way to Oberetwasgurgl via three trains and a cog railway that looks as though it’s headed to Tomorrowland. Chappelet’s journey is a similar ordeal, as is his introduction to the mayhem of the team hotel. There, he meets his new coach and teammates, his roommate for the season and his first bidet.

The on-hill depiction is even more authentic, with impressive footage of the classics—Wengen, Kitzbühel, St. Anton—courses that are the same today, but seem far hairier on the 1969 equipment. Chappelet’s first exposure to European racing captures the mental challenge of downhill. Riding to the start in a trance-like state, he watches the racers before him crash—and fights to keep those images out of his head. At the start everyone appears cool and detached, but they are intensely aware of the 5-second beeping countdown for each racer and the coaches’ crackling radios. Running late in the pack only heightens the tension, especially when there is a course-hold for a helicopter to swoop in to collect the latest casualty.

Chappelet is an immediate success, a virtually unheard of feat for an American downhiller, but a necessary Hollywood plot-accelerator. The new star is resented by his jealous teammates, and beloved by his groupies. Fame is not lost on our young stud, who seamlessly trades his helmet for his party hat the minute he crosses the finish line. Groupies are a phenomenon reserved for the men’s circuit. The women’s circuit is not similarly blessed. Our groupies certainly did not, like Chappelet’ss favorite female fan, come with a plush hotel room, wads of cash and a Porsche.

The U.S. Ski Team depiction was another point of interest. Ski racing in the States was far more obscure then than it is today, and thus needed to be presented through the dialogue. Gene Hackman, as head coach, explains to Chappelet that the travel and expense involved with the sport necessitate the team structure. But we are reminded, especially when Chappelet’s overly confident character irks his more sedate teammates, that skiing is in fact an individual sport. And here is the Catch-22, in the movie and in reality. The team seems to fear rather than foster individualism, but the most successful racers are the most independent, and even irreverent. So while the coaches and teammates resent that they can’t rein in Chappelet, they also secretly admire his capacity to tune them out and win.

The only contradiction of current team philosophy comes when Hackman chastises our hero for his lack of education. On today’s U.S. Ski Team, Chappelet’s disinterest in education would make him a conformist.

Hackman uses a familiar premise when he asserts: “All we need is money to compete with the Europeans…Give us the money and I’ll guarantee you a gold medal, maybe two.” In the movie it works, whereas in real life the “money=medals” equation has proven to be flawed.

“Downhill Racer” nails the dichotomy of a downhiller’s life, parading through Europe as a VIP and returning home as an unknown. After a modest World Cup career, I returned to Europe several years post-retirement, and the woman at the Swissair baggage desk could still rattle off a few of my stats. Meanwhile, in the States, with no gold medal to show for it, most people considered my racing a hobby.

Remembering that, my favorite line in the movie comes from Chappelet’s father, when his son returns home from winning World Cups in Europe. Unimpressed, he asks his son why he does it, if he’s not even getting paid. “I want to be famous,” his son says proudly. “To be a champion.” His father, summing up the apathy of an entire country, replies: “World’s full of ’em.”

Like in any sport at the highest level, the point is to win. So, of course, in the movie our hero does just that with an Olympic gold. And life does indeed imitate art. “Downhill Racer’s” prophecy was fulfilled by Bill Johnson in 1984 and 10 years later by Tommy Moe. They know the truth in the film’s final scene, when for a moment Chappelet sees his victory about to be stolen by a rookie. His face in that instant reminds us that fame is ephemeral and fragile….

Unless, of course, you are Robert Redford, who has transcended mere celebrity to become a legend, the kind of person you might dream about meeting once in your lifetime. All of which reminds me that I am still a very bitter woman.

Former Olympian Edie Thys lives in New York City and can be reached at ethys@skimag.com . Check out her previous Racer eX columns at www.skimag.com .