Three not-of-a-kind downhillers form strong US ski fraternity

Despite the fact that Europeans, led by Peter Mueller of Switzerland, filled the top 10 spots in ``America's downhill'' on Aspen Mountain Saturday, there are at least three bright spots in America's downhill ski racing future, each represented by a medal. Bill Johnson became the first American male skier ever to win an Olympic gold medal at Sarajevo last year, then proved it wasn't a fluke by winning three World Cup downhills. Johnson slumped this year, however, and when Doug Lewis skied brilliantly on a tough course in Bormio, Italy, to win the world championship bronze, he inherited the crown of America's top downhiller.

The third medalist won gold and silver -- but not in skiing. Steve Hegg won the individual cycling and got a silver in team pursuit at the Los Angeles Olympics.

So the three US medal winners ski arm-in-arm against the historically awesome Europeans? Well, not exactly.

It would be tough, in fact, to find three more different individuals in the same sport. In part, they are products of their American regions.

Lewis is the classic Eastern skier, a graduate of Vermont's Green Mountain Valley School, one of the fine academies that puts equal emphasis on ski racing and education. He's hoping to study at Dartmouth or Stanford, and he's such an accomplished musician that he played the piano for a sports show on Austrian TV.

Johnson, on the other hand, antagonized all the Austrians he could last year. After all, he reasoned, they wore the black hats as the traditional ski-racing heavies, not letting anyone else but the Swiss win World Cup downhills. While people have questioned the whiteness of Johnson's hat, they need to understand that Johnson has a cowboy-like freedom from the need to sugar-coat his image.

``I have to get my views across to everybody through the press,'' Bill laughs. ``Sometimes I use them, sometimes they use me. Hey, what goes around, comes around. I'm not worried about my image.''

And how does he feel about Lewis's success?

``Stop building this Doug Lewis-Bill Johnson thing up, OK?'' he tells one reporter. ``Doug and I are different guys, and that's all there is to it. Everybody else in the world is unique, too.''

Lewis agrees that reports of some sort of feud between the two are largely figments of media imaginations.

``The rivalry is there, but it's definitely made bigger by the press,'' he said. ``We rode up the lift together twice today and just talked about the course.''

How do the two Olympic gold medalists get along?

``Bill and I are not the best of friends,'' Hegg says, ``but he's coming around now.''

The three ski as differently as they act.

By far the steepest part of the Aspen downhill course is a snowy wall called Aztec.

Last year Johnson won at Aspen by holding his unbelievably tight tuck longer then anyone else on the steep turns of Aztec. This year, Aztec was a sheet of ice.

Theo Nadig, the US ski team's downhill coach, says ``If you watch Lewis down Aztec, there's not another downhiller who takes so many chances. Even when it starts to get scary, Lewis still goes looking for speed. He's crazy. Johnson is more the tactical guy, Lewis just goes out there full blast.''

What about Hegg?

``Hegg is an awesome athlete,`` Nadig says.

Bicycle racing fans are still in awe over Hegg's ``iron man'' feats at the Olympics, where he pulled gruelling extra laps two days in a row to lift the US team to its silver medal.

Hegg is starting to get the same kind of respect for his skiing. Despite a layoff of almost one full year from skiing, Hegg said, ``I got back on my skis at Copper Mountain in the beginning of November, and after about three or four days I was skiing better than when I quit.

``I enjoy the two sports about the same,'' Hegg says, adding, ``I think I'm going to stick with the two sports until it's just not possible to continue doing both.''

Hegg lives in Dana Point, a small town on the California coast which is much quieter than Malibu, where Johnson just built a house with a hot tub.

``You look where Bill lives and that's kind of in the fast lane, and that's just not my style,'' Hegg says.

Nadig acknowledges that ``Johnson is much harder to approach. You have to know Johnson really well to understand him. First you have to go through the curtain that he normally pulls down.''

But then Nadig brightens, remembering something about this loner that few people know.

``When Lewis won the bronze medal in Bormio, Johnson went home to the hotel alone and made up a little US flag that said, `Good run, Lewie' and put it up on the entry door at the hotel.

``When we came in, we saw it, but he didn't say `I did it.' I think they all three respect each other, but they are just so totally different.''

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