Young Doug Lewis emerging as America's top downhill ski racer

As one of the youngest members on the international downhill ski racing circuit, Doug Lewis is nonetheless completely ``in tune'' with his surroundings. The Vermont Symphony Orchestra will understand. Lewis, an accomplished musician who often spends the time between races polishing his own compositions on the piano, has been invited several times in the last few years to play the cello with the Vermont Symphony. But each time the 21-year-old resident of Salisbury, Vt., has had to turn the offers down. For now, at least, the orchestra will have to be content to play second fiddle to Lewis's ski racing career. Bill Johnson will understand.

Johnson was Lewis's roommate and everybody's first fiddle in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in Februry 1984, after he won the Olympic gold medal in the men's downhill. Johnson, the 25-year-old streetwise kid from southern California who brashly predicted his victory, and Lewis, the young, quiet Vermonter, were the only Americans entered in the glamorous event. Lewis finished 24th.

``Only a few people can room with Johnson,'' says Lewis. ``I'm one of them. Actually, it doesn't matter to me who I room with as long as they get to bed early and don't snore.''

The two no longer room together, but that's not the only change in their status on the United States men's downhill ski team. While Johnson has gone into a bit of a tailspin following Olympic achievement, Lewis has quietly emerged as the new American force in downhill ski racing.

Doug became the first American male skier to win a world championship medal when he captured the bronze at Bormio, Italy, last February, and he also recorded four other top-15 finishes during the season. Meanwhile Johnson, whose brashness and feuds with coaches and other racers on the circuit seemed to earn him more headlines than his racing, was 14th in the worlds and had only three top-15 finishes overall. Thus in the international rankings that determine the all-important start order, Lewis now ran ks ahead of Johnson.

This year, for the first time, the World Cup downhill season opened in August with two races in Argentina. Lewis finished 2nd and 15th. He hasn't done quite that well in the early European races, finishing 19th at Val-d'Is[fs1]`ere a week ago and 18th at Val Gardena, Italy, this past weekend. Those were still the best US finishes each time, however, and his 21 points to date (compared with zero for Johnson and 14 for Lewis himself all last season) rank him 9th on the overall list at the moment.

Lewis's performance in Argentina ``was definitely no fluke,'' according to US Ski Team spokesman John Dakin. ``It was not a course that particularly suited his style of skiing -- there was a lot of gliding in it,'' Dakin explained. ``It was not a course he should have done well on, but he did.''

Aside from the differences in their personalities, interests, and ages, and their flip-flop in the results column, the skiing styles of Johnson and Lewis are also as different as night and day.

Johnson is a ``glider''; Lewis, a ``technician.'' No one in the world can ride a flat ski any better or faster than Johnson. Lewis is rapidly proving that few in the world are better than he in the turns of a steep downhill course.

On the steep, icy course at Bormio, Lewis trailed the leaders by more than a second at the halfway mark, but he made up the time in the icy turns at the bottom, to come within 14 hundredths of a second of a gold medal.

Actually, Lewis is something of a Johnny-come-lately to the downhill, regarded as the glamour event of alpine ski racing. Doug, the third of three children, was introduced to skiing in the junior program at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl in Ripton, Vt., and at 15 was ranked second in the nation in giant slalom in his age group. But later that year, after enrolling in the Green Mountain Valley School (GMVS), a ski academy in Waitsfield, Vt., he got his first serious taste of downhill competition.

``I don't think concentrating on downhill was a conscious decision on Doug's part,'' says Bill Moore, one of Lewis's teacher-coaches at GMVS. ``I think he probably had as much promise in the technical events.

``But success breeds success,'' Moore continues. ``At that time, anyone who showed good promise in downhill was pushed faster than the technical skiers. They were fast-tracking downhillers then. Anyone who did well in the event was sort of skimmed off.''

Lewis was skimmed off and fast-tracked more quickly than most, although his career was nearly sidelined before it began when he sustained a back injury in a 1981 fall in Aspen, Colo. He recovered, kept moving up, and made the US World Cup team in 1983.

Until Johnson's dramatic breakthrough in 1984, followed by Lewis's success last winter and fast start this season, American men had never done well in the highly specialized event that has been dominated by the Swiss, Austrians, and, in recent years, Canadians.

Lewis is young for a top downhiller -- most of the others are in their late 20s -- but he also brings an enthusiasm to the circuit missing among his older rivals. He thinks music will be part of his future, but he isn't sure exactly what that future is beyond ski racing. After the world championships, he was featured on Austrian television playing an original composition on the piano which was superimposed over his medal-winning run.

A 1982 graduate of GMVS, he was accepted at Dartmouth College but has deferred admission to concentrate on skiing. He usually spends the off-season, however, in a classroom. Three summers ago he took a total-immersion course in German at Middlebury College so he could converse with other members of the World Cup tour in their native language. Two summers ago he studied creative writing at the University of Vermont. Last summer also marked a new weight training emphasis for him.

``This is one of the first summers I've really worked on weights,'' he says. ``I did a lot of weights every other day. I never thought weights made that much difference, but now when I get in trouble I can push it a little bit more because I have that extra strength. It's a confidence thing.''

The weight program has added about 10 pounds to his 5-ft. 9-in., 160-lb. frame. The extra weight has also given him a bit more stability on his skis while hurtling down a mountainside at speeds upward of 60 m.p.h..

Lewis says he is taking ski racing one year at a time, but he seems to have his sights set squarely on 1988 and the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. Who will come out on top in those Games that are still more than two years away is anybody's guess. Just look what has happened in the two years since Sarajevo.

But for now, the situation that exists between America's top two downhill ski racers is one that Lewis is enjoying. Although he seems to be in the driver's seat, with the confidence and results to back up that claim, Lewis knows that Johnson's fame continues to place the pressure squarely on the Olympic champ, leaving Lewis free to play spoiler. So far, he is enjoying the role.

``If I don't concentrate on beating people or worry about political stuff, but just concentrate on skiing well, I think I'll do well,'' he says with what could only be called a boyish grin.

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