Who is an American Downhiller? Or better yet, what is American Downhiller? Over the years, the band of brothers that have made up the United States men’s downhill ski team has become so much more than a group of guys hurtling down the icy slopes of Kitzbuehel, Wengen, and Bormio, fighting to make a name for Americans in a European sport.
The American Downhillers are not just a team, but a culture. Their story is one of grit and perseverance, identity and brotherhood. One that encaptures the history and the spirit of downhill skiing in America, from its roots in the 1950s to the full-blown movement led by Marco Sullivan that is inspiring future generations of aspiring speed racers. And now, as of Friday, “American Downhiller” has been officially released as a full-blown documentary film.
The journey to visually capture the spirit of downhill in America began in the fall of 2016, when Ski Racing Media’s Claire Brown and Susie Theis were approached by the marketing team at POC with a story idea – take the American Downhiller culture and present it as a video series. Sullivan, a four-time Olympian and retired U.S. speed skier, had taken the name and slapped it on speed camps and merchandise, but the story behind the brand remained widely unknown. The athletes vaguely knew of the legacies that tied them together, but those historic stories had not been widely passed down to young ski racers and ski racing fans alike.
“When you say American Downhiller, you’re saying this is our spin, this is how we do it,” said 1989-98 U.S. Ski Team member and World Cup winner AJ Kitt. “We’re gonna take this sport, and we’re gonna do it our way. The depth of how important this sport is for those of us who’ve participated in it, for what we’ve sacrificed, and what we did to pursue our dreams in this sport, is a really important piece of (the American Downhiller) history.”
The deeper Brown and Theis dug into the project, the more they peeled back the layers behind the high-profile, individual successes of athletes like Kitt, Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller. They began to see the American Downhiller story as a collective of triumphs, a steady rise into the spotlight built upon by generations of athletes, rather than a generic title for American men who have individually made a name for themselves on the world stage.
“I grew up ski racing in the Midwest,” said Theis. “I never raced FIS, never had aspirations of going to the Olympics. I raced because I loved the sport and the bond you created with your friends and competitors. When I started working at Ski Racing it was really cool to be so close to the top end of the sport, but it wasn’t until we started working on the American Downhiller project that I saw that kind of team spirit. The same reason I got into the sport, I saw that in these guys.”
This team spirit that sealed the bond between generations of U.S. speed skiers men could have easily been lost. Current athletes may not know some of the stories Brown and Theis uncovered, such as that of Mike Lafferty, the first American man to finish top three in the overall downhill standings. Or that of the trailblazing Billy Johnson, a gold medalist who built up quite the reputation with his European competitors and may have contributed to a deeper rivalry between the Americans and the Austrians.
“A lot of times if you’re not winning, you don’t get a whole lot of recognition for it,” said Sullivan. “We’ve had a few great champions in our past but there’s also a lot of guys who raced in the World Cup and were in the trenches in Europe, and this movie gives credit to them and what it was all about. They were just downhillers because they thought it was cool and fun and they weren’t really getting paid, they were doing it because it was the most badass thing to do.”
Current U.S. Ski Team athlete, Steven Nyman grew up idolizing Kyle Rassmussen, who won the Lauberhorn downhill in 1995. After his career was over, Rassmussen sank into the background until he showed face at a few World Cup races to relive his experiences, this time as a spectator. Nyman made a point to let Rassmussen know the influence he had on him as a kid and the inspiration he provided in his career. And that, Nyman says, is one of the reasons why the American Downhiller movement and film are so important.
Much like the film, American Downhiller aims to tap into and preserve the knowledge Americans have gained through their European exploits and pass that knowledge down to future generations. The strength of an American Downhiller, Nyman says, is their fearlessness, and he hopes that past generations’ successes and failures showcased in the documentary will be seen as inspiration to young up and comers, as a challenge to push boundaries and seek victory and glory on the world stage.
“Hopefully (current guys) feel a responsibility to pass on the knowledge and information that they have acquired because this thing has shaped them into who they are right now, and a lot of guys in the past have just kind of gone and it’s lost,” explained Nyman. “That’s something that inspired the American Downhiller movement was to bring everybody together to share this information.”
Downhill is unique in the sense that over time, not much has changed when it comes to the course and its terrain. Skis and technology have developed rapidly, but the Lauberhorn is still the Lauberhorn, and the Hahnenkamm is still the Hahnenkamm, just with better course prep.
“The fact that these guys race on the same courses that go back 60 to 70 years in some cases, there’s a commonality in experience and language that transcends generations,” said contributing director Lyons. “Travis Ganong can talk to Mike Lafferty about the same section of courses that they’re racing now…and when you combine that with the risk and the fear and the thrill of (downhill), that creates a culture and bond specifically within American Downhiller but more importantly across the sport as a whole.”
“Those guys live a life that they all understand,” he added. “It’s hard to be risking your life on a day to day basis and traveling in a foreign land in a van full of guys who are competing against each other. You have to figure out a way to not only just cope but thrive.”
Since that fall of 2016, Brown and Theis have been stockpiling interviews and footage, gathering the tales of various team members’ experiences as they fought to establish a name for themselves on European soil. Much like the pursuit of ski racing and downhill glory is a passion project for members of the U.S. Ski Team, the making of the “American Downhiller” film became a passion project for Brown, Theis, U.S. Ski Team alum Scott Lyons, and American Downhiller Steve Porino. With the help of Jalbert Productions and POC, the team was able to put together a compilation of archival and modern footage that intimately shares the stories of pioneers and current athletes alike, in large part due to the crew’s efforts and relationship built over the years poured into these stories.
“When we got started, we didn’t know any better, we were just following the story and trying to put the story first and let that be our guide,” said Theis. “We’d ask Bill Hudson, ‘Hey we want to come interview you, but can we also stay at your house?’ Whatever we had to do to make it happen.”
At the end of the day, the team felt it was more or less their duty to create the film. Not only due to the effort or volume of work on their end, but as an ode to the sport that had given so much to them throughout their lives. And as a gift, to the men who helped define it.
“It was a very non-traditional way of making a documentary, but it made it more special because we got to know the guys and their families and build life-long friendships,” said Brown. “American Downhiller tells the story of the characters in the sport’s history and allows the average person to see the success, the failures, the dangers, and the risk of a world that they don’t know about and learn about its American pioneers. And the opportunity to preserve that history and culture and help build a foundation of interest has been incredibly rewarding.”
The result of the team’s labor of love is a film that captures America’s ski racing history in a way that has visually never been done before, showcasing the invisible string that ties each athlete together through time, giving American ski racing fans a culture to hold onto and support.
It’s a special moment for the filmmakers, but an even more special moment for the athletes, the guys that poured their blood, sweat, and tears, into an unforgiving discipline for years of their lives. For guys like Kitt, who continues to coach at American Downhiller camps and act as a NASTAR pacesetter, it’s a dream come true. Individual stories of successful athletes are important, he says, but the cultural piece that ties those stories together is something he can pass along to his kids, or any kid that has dreams of being the next big American name.
“If we can inspire more young kids to wanna strap ’em on, and go to Europe and compete in somebody else’s sport, dominate, and go “plant the flag” in the finish line, so to speak, that’s where I really think this movie can take people who watch it,” said Kitt. “It starts with understanding our history, understanding those who came before, and what their accomplishments were, and what their accomplishments weren’t, and taking that to the next level.”
Plus, there’s just one thing the men’s downhill team has yet to achieve, and if the American Downhillers want anything, it’s to inspire the next group of men coming up through the ranks to fight for that last accolade that has eluded the best of the best since the 1950s.
“We put this challenge out there in the movie, and I think it’s something that should not be lost in the story,” said Kitt. “We need the next generation to go and pursue the dream and pursue putting that last jewel on the crown, the icing on the cake, the last piece of the puzzle. We need that men’s downhill title.”