Back In The Fast Lane

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BRIAN BAHR/ALLSPORT

Erik Schlopy of the USA ski team

Austria is to alpine skiing what Switzerland is to money: small but powerful, and more than a match for the U.S., not to mention the rest of the schussing world. The Austrians have dominated skiing in recent years, whereas the last American man to win an Olympic Alpine gold was Tommy Moe in 1994. In general, U.S. downhillers have made the nation's soccer players look downright Brazilian.

If anyone can end that futility, it's Erik Schlopy, 29, a medal contender in the slalom and giant-slalom events, having just finished a World Cup season in which he placed third in the final standings, the best American showing in 18 years. Schlopy (pronounced Shlope-y) also heads to Salt Lake City this February with the kind of prodigal-son story that NBC will make into a 30-min. mini-series preceding his 50-sec. runs on the slalom course at Park City. "What I went through," says Schlopy, "isn't just nontraditional. It's never been done before."

At 19, Schlopy was U.S. champion. Beyond prodigious talent, he had a sharp strategic mind and great technique, rarities in a young skier. At 20, he nearly blew himself apart in a grotesque wreck during the world championships in Japan. The damage included a broken back and a punctured lung. Schlopy's health gradually returned, and he even made the '94 Olympic team, but his progress as a skier had stalled. "I came back, but I wasn't improving," he says. "I don't know if it was due to being unhappy with the team environment or a lack of maturity. It was probably a number of things." Whatever the cause, Schlopy took extreme action. He quit the team and joined the World Pro Ski Tour.

Yes, skiing has a pro tour, although it's more like a minor-league, ski-bum tour. To go from the luxury of the national team--where coaches, technicians and handlers cater to an athlete's every need--to the penury of the pro tour--which features X Games-inspired short-course, head-to-head races--was a shock, one Schlopy thought he needed. "The sums of money are so little that you have to do well if you want to keep going. It was a total leap of faith." Schlopy earned less than $100,000 in three seasons, which went to cover his expenses, but he was rookie of the year in 1995 and easily posted the top results of any American.

With renewed confidence, Schlopy set his sights on Salt Lake City. U.S. ski team coaches were skeptical, but if Schlopy could get his world ranking into the top 60 in one event or the top 100 in two, he would make the team. With no money or sponsors, Schlopy borrowed $25,000 from a friend, bought a minivan and started chasing races across North America to get his ranking up. He stayed with friends, friends of friends and, when absolutely necessary, splurged on $19 hotel rooms. The races were in dismal little towns, and Schlopy got off to a terrible start, but he rallied to finish the season ranked 63rd in giant slalom and 97th in slalom, edging his way back onto the squad.

With the world's top coaches and equipment again at his disposal, Schlopy's rankings hit the top 10 almost immediately. "All the details were taken care of," he says, "so I found myself with all this other energy to put into my skiing." Besides the amenities, Schlopy is grateful to be on a team again. He's particularly fond of competing with Bode Miller, 24, a skiing wild man from Franconia, N.H. The two shared a house in Innsbruck, Austria, this past winter and might even share the medal stand if Miller can just avoid crashing. "Bode's sort of all or nothing," says Schlopy. "I'm more calculating, methodical. He just goes for it. He's fast--at least when he finishes, he's fast."

In addition to Miller, Schlopy will have to contend with Hermann (the Herminator) Maier, the coolly intimidating Austrian who won two golds in Nagano. Maier is recovering from a broken leg suffered in an August motorcycle crash, but he's notoriously tough, and, at least in the world's eyes, he's the favorite until proved otherwise. Schlopy is hardly quaking in fear. "Skiing was difficult before Herman was there, and it'll be difficult after he leaves," he says. "And you can quote me on that." Done.