It was late afternoon in Kitzbuehel. Suddenly, the deafening din of 50,000 screaming fans subsided. D, as he was known to friends and teammates, dropped into a tunnel underneath the Hahnenkamm stadium. His eyes wandered to the names on the wall – Toni Sailer, Franz Klammer, Jean Claude Killy, American Buddy Werner – all past champions of the race.
Now it was his turn. American Daron Rahlves had just become a Hahnenkamm Sieger.
The Strasse der Sieger under the stadium in Kitzbuehel is a walk through time – the Hall of Fame of ski racing’s most fabled race down the perilous Streif. On January 25, 2003, Rahlves became only the second American to win the storied downhill, joining 1959 champion Buddy Werner (Chuck Ferries won the Hahnenkamm slalom in 1962).
“Kitzbuehel was always a special place for me with its tradition,” reflected Rahlves. “The course is the ultimate challenge with the risk and reward. To be an athlete at that level, to have so much confidence in yourself – and no second thought about going fast and pushing that line, that limit, and not feel uncomfortable about it – that’s what ski racing is about.”
Over a five year span, Rahlves was on the podium seven times, including his 2003 downhill and 2004 super-G victories. It was a pivotal period in U.S. Ski Team’s history.
After Bill Johnson’s stunning 1984 season, with three World Cup wins and Olympic gold, the men went through a drought until AJ Kitt won in Val d’Isere, France, in December, 1991 putting him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Tommy Moe picked up the torch with his opening day Olympic victory in Lillehammer in 1994. Kyle Rasmussen won the Lauberhorn in Wengen in 1995. Then Rahlves broke onto the scene in 2000, sweeping a pair of downhills in Kvitfjell, Norway. A year later, he silenced the Austrian crowd in St. Anton with his World Championship super-G gold in 2001.
The Americans were arriving.
Rahlves came into Kitzbuehel on a roll. He had won in Bormio over Christmas and was second a week earlier in Wengen. He arrived to the Austrian village with confidence.
“I woke up that morning and felt it was my day,” he said. “It was a funny feeling. I’ve never really had that feeling before. Deep inside of me, I had this extra will.”
But the weather wasn’t on his side. A half meter of snow took out the super-G a day earlier. Saturday, fog blanketed the valley. Time flew by as officials kept delaying in 30 minute increments. Finally, the decision was made to move the start down to the Alte Schneisse, just above the super-G start, and give it a go at 1:45 p.m. That eliminated the challenging Mausfalle and Steilhang but still sent racers speeding through the imposing Seidelalm, Hausberg, and Zielschuss sections.
It was getting late in the day as racers ratcheted out of the start as quickly as possible. Didier Cuche, who went out 14th, held the lead as Rahlves, starting 26, put his ski poles over the timing wand. His close friend and start coach Pete “Baby Huey” Lavin shouted at the top of his lungs as the Californian charged out of the start, still wary of his crash a year earlier when he was too aggressive on the Steilhang, pinching off the line and crashing into the nets.
“I came back that year after the crash knowing I had the ability,” said Rahlves. “I knew I couldn’t push that much. But it’s a fine line. I also knew I had to take a chance on the tactics.”
Off the jump and through the turns of the Seidelalm Rahves was off the pace. He picked it up in the Larchenshuss then absolutely pinned it from the Hausberg down through the Zielschuss, crossing the line with a narrow .05 second margin over Cuche.
Now it was sit and wait. Next up, Austrian Hannes Trinkl – a clear threat but came out well off the pace and dropped into fourth. Then it was down to number 30: Stefan Eberharter. The defending champion sliced through the Seidelalm with the lead. But Rahlves finish was too much for the Austrian and he dropped into fourth.
Rahlves had become the first American to win the Hahenkamm downhill since 1959.
“I’ve never seen Kitzbuehel so quiet,” said U.S. Ski Team downhill coach John McBride. “It was Black Saturday – no Austrian on the podium!”
Atomic serviceman Willi Wiltz – one of the great American tuners – literally ran down from the Alte Schneisse start in tears. In the finish, the original U.S. Ski Team coach turned TV commentator, Bob Beattie, was sobbing.
Rahlves was always the calm, cool California persona. He didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. But this was a special day.
“It was about the way I felt as a ski racer and as a person,” he recalled. “I was firing on all cylinders. It was a heightened sensation. I had good feeling in Beaver Creek, Bormio and Wengen. But Kitzbuehel was at that next level. I loved feeding off that fear. I felt comfortable taking that risk, knowing where that limit was. You have to give respect, but you have to go out and own it.”
Classic sporting events like the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel are rooted in iconic celebration. That night, Rahlves was comfortable behind the bar at The Londoner as teammates and coaches celebrated the historic day.
“Every time someone wins it permeates the team,” said Head Coach Phil McNichol. “We were starting to win. Then everyone on the circuit takes notice. But when you win Kitzbuehel, people REALLY take notice. It’s a heightened level of admiration and awe in everyone around you. They look at you and your team. You can’t help but feel that level of praise and adulation.”
Over a five year span, the American men took center stage with a stunning 16 World Cup downhill wins. Rahlves and Bode Miller won three straight downhills at Beaver Creek. Miller and Rahlves went gold-silver in downhill at 2005 Worlds. Nyman began his string of wins on the Saslong in Val Gardena. Marco Sullivan won in Chamonix.
Reflecting back on that day 16 years ago, Rahlves, now 45, holds fond memories. He came back the next summer for the dedication of his champion’s gondola, his name forever etched on the cabin. This week he’ll be in the finish as an honored guest.
Earlier this month, Rahlves and Moe were hanging out in Jackson Hole – an Olympic downhill gold medalist and a Hahnenkamm champion skiing couloirs together. Ski racing’s been good for them. Both had storied careers and still find passion for being up on the mountain. Both are raising kids on skis.
“Ski racing opened a lot of doors for both of us,” said Rahlves. “And we’re both really happy with what we got. It’s an honor to be a part of the history of my sport.”