The Hard Luck Kid of skiing takes another and perhaps a final run at the glory that’s long eluded him
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Winter Olympics Preview, February 1998
The Hard Luck Kid of skiing takes another — and perhaps a final — run at the glory that’s long eluded him
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
“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
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
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,
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
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
“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
“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
“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.”