The Hard Luck Kid of skiing takes another and perhaps a final run at the glory that's long eluded him

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Winter Olympics Preview, February 1998

My Snakebit Career

The Hard Luck Kid of skiing takes another — and perhaps a final — run at the glory that's long eluded him
By Craig Vetter


The Contenders: In the men's events, any Austrian downhiller, especially Fritz Strobl, and Italy's van Gogh-esque (he lost part of an ear in a car accident) Kristian Ghedina. In the slalom, Austria's Thomas Stangassinger, the defending Olympic champ, and Thomas Sykora are poised to subdue Italian lothario Alberto Tomba. Austrian Hermann Maier, turned down by the national team as a scrawny 15-year-old, may finally reap his super G moment; years of bricklaying have turned him into a powerhouse. In giant slalom, Switzerland's Michael von Gruenigen faces Canadian dark horse Thomas Grandi. Norway's Renaissance skier Kjetil Andre Aamodt is a hopeful in all four events.

Among the women, Sweden's Pernilla Wiberg will be an all-event player, unless an October knee injury holds her up. In downhill and super G she faces stern Teutonic ("I am not a smiling machine") Katja Seizinger and Italian phenom Isolde Kostner. Not content with single golds in the last two Games, Italy's Deborah Compagnoni is gunning for double gold in slalom and GS.

Watch For: Swiss skiers with teeny pores; the women's team travels with its own beautician.

One More Thing: Three hundred local volunteers and junior high students transplanted 4,400 miyama'aoi plants and 870 barrenwort plants to lure the protected Gifu butterfly away from its favored breeding ground at the foot of the men's super G course. — SARAH FRIEDMAN

After ten years as America's brightest, and then most disappointing, hope in the rat scramble of the World Cup downhill circuit, perhaps the only thing harder for AJ Kitt than linking turns at 80 miles an hour was sitting on a sun deck over a beer, trying to put a good face on an ugly year while 24 guys with European names were leaning into the gravity of the steeps a half-mile away in the last race of the 1997 season, the championship race, for which he hadn't even qualified. The next big show, the Nagano Games, was still months away, but this sorry finale didn't look like a sign of great things to come.

"No, no, I won't watch any of these races," said Kitt. Just being in Vail without a number on his bib was pain enough. In fact, he didn't want to make the drive from his home in Boulder, wouldn't have except for pressure from one of his sponsors to be at an event they were throwing. "And," he said, grabbing at think-positive nuggets, "it was a chance to do a little free skiing with these guys." He nodded at the couple with him at the table, his first ski instructors, his parents, Ross and Nancy, who successfully got him sliding on a pair of wooden skis when he was a wobbly two years old — perhaps the last time expectations for the startlingly talented Kitt were fully realized.

At 29, Kitt carries the unmistakable image of his father writ just a bit larger, stronger: 200 pounds of muscle on a five-foot-11 frame, buzz-cut brown hair, clean open face, blue eyes set wide over thin lips, the old-fashioned look of the all-American boy.

"AJ beat his dad at golf yesterday, for the first time ever," said Nancy, beaming at her only child. "I've been after Ross for years to let AJ win, and all he'd ever say was 'No way!'"

Kitt said nothing. Instead, he sat with a weary sort of stoicism, getting ready to talk, one more time, about a career in ski racing that was famous for loss and injury; getting ready to insist that, despite it all, he felt good, physically and mentally, about the upcoming season and the run to Nagano. On one level, it was a professional sort of optimism — something for his sponsors, coaches, and teammates — but just below that you could feel him talking to himself, trying to rekindle the fire with which he started.

Kitt has skied his nearly one thousand downhill races and practice runs in the shadow of his own early promise. He began racing at six years old on the hills near his home in Rochester, New York. When he was 15 his parents enrolled him in The Green Mountain Valley School near Sugarbush in Vermont, where he got hooked on downhill. "I liked it," he said. "The speed, the air, being on the edge and in dangerous situations." It was the kind of go-fast-or-crash appetite that coaches watch for, and Kitt combined it with a thoughtfulness and coachability that were unusual in the egotistic cult of downhillers. He made the U.S. Ski Team at 18 and at 19 was headed to the Olympics. In Calgary, he took 26th place, the best American downhill finish.

Four years later, on the eve of the Albertville Games, Kitt seemed to hit his pace. In December of 1991, in the first event of the season, he became the second man in U.S. ski-team history (after Bill Johnson) to win a World Cup downhill race. A month after that, in KitzbÆhel, Austria, on the gnarliest downhill course of them all, he again shocked the circuit by finishing second. The promise of those races, however, was dimmed by his Olympic runs: On a hill he did not like, he finished ninth. Disappointing, but not devastating, he said at the time.

What followed were six years of injuries and a trail of flukish losses. By 1994, Kitt was skiing like a man who'd decided to quit but hadn't taken off his skis yet. Then, in the wake of an off-season marriage, he regained his focus and in March of '95 battled a blizzard on Aspen Mountain to take his second win on the World Cup tour. But the French filed a protest, and three days later officials declared the race invalid. For Kitt, who'd had 36 hours of pure ski-hero ecstasy, the reversal left a wound he still deals with.

"It changed everything for me," he said. "I had to relearn what competition was all about. I had to admit to myself that the sport wasn't pure, that it could be politically driven and corrupt. That's been tough. It's been hard to get thoroughly excited about competing again because in the back of my mind I'm probably a little afraid of winning, feeling so much joy, then having it taken away again."

"AJ has a hard time with failure," says his friend and teammate Tommy Moe, who won the men's downhill in Lillehammer but has been plagued by a knee injury since 1995. "Obviously, he got ripped off a few times, but hey, everybody does. In ski racing you have to be intense, but when things don't go your way, you have to relax."

Kitt went into the '96 season, he said, "determined to ski against the clock, against the mountain, against myself, worrying only about my effort and my performance." Then, in Val-d'Isêre, injury was added to insult in a crash that blew out his knee and set the stage for another series of bad races the next season. And so the question remained: Why not just limp away, put an end to this ill-fated, roller coaster career?

"I am thinking about racing a couple more years and then retiring," he said. "But there are a lot of things I haven't accomplished yet. I want an Olympic medal and I want a good shot at a World Cup downhill title."

By the start of this season, however, it looked like Kitt was still far from both goals. Though a likely shoe-in for the American Olympic downhill team, he finished a disappointing 29th and 45th in the first two races of the World Cup circuit in Colorado.

"Unfortunately, he got off to a slow start," says U.S. men's downhill and super G coach Ueli Luthi. Then sounding, as coaches often do, like an occupational therapist, he adds, "But I think he wants to succeed — we just have to concentrate hard on daily tasks. We have to make sure he doesn't go into the tank. He can get negative, and we only have room for positive."

"I do think this year is going to be a lot better," says Kitt, doing his job, talking the brave game.

And what about fun? Any room for that?

"Fun," he says, "is when you finish a race standing on the podium. I haven't had any of that in years."

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