Speedy Rahlves wants to make mark in Turin

Daron Rahlves' need for speed knows no limits.

Three weeks before the confessed adrenaline junkie ripped to victory in the World Cup downhill season opener on Dec. 2, America's most successful speed skier got a bird's-eye view of what was waiting for him from behind the throttle of an F-16 fighter jet.

Rahlves hot-dogged at near-Mach 1 speeds over the treacherous Birds of Prey course as part of a junket with Air National Guard, even taking over the controls and juking through some barrel-rolls over the snow-bound Colorado Rockies.

For Rahlves, it was just another day of going fast and being happy.

"I'm living my dream," Rahlves said. "There are a lot of guys who I grew up with who had a lot of talent, but just didn't have the breaks to go further with it. They tell me how much it sucks to be at an office job."

Fast-forward to early December and ski racing's top gun roared to a victory over teammate and rival Bode Miller on home snow to set the tone for this Winter Olympic season.

A year ago, Miller beat Rahlves en route to winning the overall World Cup. Rahlves struggled through a 2004 frustrating season, but he turned the tables in Beaver Creek, Colo., in what he hopes will be the first step toward the World Cup downhill title.

"It's nice to reverse it, I'll tell you that," Rahlves said. "At the start, [Miller] said he was going to freak out on this hill and that I better step up. I just kind of laughed inside and said, 'Man, you don't need to tell me that, because it's all coming out.' "

The laid-back Rahlves, whose cool off-snow demeanor is in sharp contrast to his game-day intensity, is poised to challenge Miller as the top star on snow in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy in February.

For a skier who's won more speed events than any U.S. skier -- 10 World Cup wins and counting -- hardly anyone knows his name.

That could change in February with a breakout performance on the broiling Olympic downhill course at Sestriere, where he won in 2004.

"I'm definitely flying under the radar a little bit," Rahlves said. "That's fine with me. I'm happy with the respect I get."

At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, he's a pocket rocket compared to the bigger, heavyweight brutes of downhill specialists such as Hermann Maier and defending World Cup downhill champion Michael Walchhofer, who tips the scales at 225 pounds.

Nicknamed "D-Money," Rahlves scooped up two world championship medals (silver in downhill and bronze in giant slalom) in February to add to his 2001 world super-G title and six national titles.

His major kudos, however, come from what he did to the mighty Austrians on their home mountain at Kitzbuehel, site of the Hahnenkamm course, considered the world's most dangerous and compelling downhill.

In 2003, he became the only American to win on the Hahnenkamm, and then returned the next year to become the only non-Austrian to win the super-G at Kitzbuehel.

Imagine the Cuban national team beating the New York Yankees in the World Series, and you get the idea of Rahlves' heresy.

"That's my biggest win of all time," Rahlves said. "Kitzbuehel is the ultimate race for us. You are forever a legend if you win that race."

Rahlves has a quiver of toys that would make any speed-freak proud.

Packed in his garage in his home along the sparkling shore of Lake Tahoe are a Harley, a 1968 Chevy Camaro, a Honda CR250 racing bike and other assortments of jet-skis and a ProAir Nautique boat.

Rahlves could graduate to X Games competitions if he ever wants to leave the World Cup circuit behind. To unwind after a long racing season, he competes in skier-cross and free-ride events in Alaska and around Lake Tahoe, and hits the mountain bike, motocross and the jet-ski.

But •

"Genuinely down deep inside I love to ski. That's why were up here," he said. "We want to win every time we get into the gate. I wouldn't be showing up if that wasn't an option for me."

Like most elite American skiers, Rahlves had to pull up stakes to attend one of the East Coast prep schools, where ski racing is what football is to central Texas.

He attended Vermont's Green Mountain Valley School, where alums include former ski team members A.J Kitt, Doug Lewis and Katie Monahan, but didn't completely focus on ski racing until after he won the 1993 world jet-ski championships.

By then, Rahlves decided he preferred his water to be frozen.

For all his success, his Olympics experiences have been less than memorable. He snuck onto the 1998 Olympic team and took a respectable seventh at the super-G and 20th at the GS. In Salt Lake City, where he was hoping for a big breakthrough, he finished a disappointing eighth in the super-G and 16th in the downhill.

He's hoping to correct that lone blip on his résumé in Italy.

"The Olympics are important and I'd love to win," Rahlves said. "There are other goals and it's just one day, so anything can happen, but to win the gold medal would be amazing."

And Rahlves knows this could be one of his last opportunities. At 32, he's already hinting at retirement after what will be his third Winter Olympics.

He can't imagine a better way to go out than being faster than everyone else.

Andrew Hood is a freelance writer living in Spain and the author of "Armstrong Rewrites History: The 2004 Tour de France" for VeloPress.