Standing in the start house above the tree line atop the Rocher de Bellevarde, you are on the top of the world. There is no downhill start quite like it. Looking out, your gaze is transfixed on the towering peaks of the Graian Alps across the valley in nearby Italy. As you swivel around, you have a panoramic 360-degree view from the towering La Grande Motte 800 meters above you to the tiny village of La Daille in the valley.
Peering down onto the classic O.K. course in Val d’Isere, named for French ski stars Henri Oreiller and Jean-Claude Killy, 23-year-old AJ Kitt slid calmly into the start house. That calmness belied the conviction you could see in his eyes. In his mind, he held a keen sense of purpose. This was his day. He owned it.
In December, 1991, it had been nearly eight years since an American man had won a World Cup in any discipline. The glory of Sarajevo 1984 was a distant memory. In a period when the U.S. Ski Team desperately needed a leader, AJ Kitt was about to step up.
Kitt’s decade-long career with the U.S. Ski Team was a vital piece of U.S. Ski Team history, bridging from the success of downhill stars Bill Johnson and Doug Lewis to a new cast of characters who were soon to command attention. His take-charge attitude helped launch American Downhillers into one of their longest and deepest periods of sustained success.
An unlikely ski racer
In a way, Kitt was an unlikely ski racer. Growing up in western New York, his ski instructor parents put him on snow when he was two at the tiny Swain ski area, an hour south of their Rochester home. Racing was never in the original plan. It was more about family.
His childhood ski area was formative and fun. Parents Ross and Nancy had a camper trailer at Swain with other families. Every weekend they would pull into town and turn the kids loose: “Be home at 10.”
“We had a pretty good rat pack of kids,” said Kitt. “We skied all day Saturday and Sunday every weekend.”
His first introduction to racing was NASTAR. It was ironic as, years later, Kitt would become NASTAR’s most celebrated pacesetter.
With AJ catching the ski racing bug, soon the Kitt family was traveling to races all over western New York. About that time, a young girl a year older, Diann Roffe, was tearing it up at nearby Brantling. “She was the hot shot,” Kitt recalled. “But having a girl beat you was really something.”
As excited and motivated as Kitt was with ski racing, it wasn’t gelling for him. “I wasn’t even in the conversation until I was 17,” he said. “I can remember looking at the scores. I was never near the top 20 – it bummed me out. But it also formed a resilience in me and a desire to train hard.”
That resiliency and hard work ethic became a hallmark of his career.
Mountain House to GMVS
Kitt may not have been high up on the scoreboard, but he had desire. At the age of 13, he took that spirit to ski with coach Horst Weber at Mountain House in Lake Placid for two years. At 15, he moved to Green Mountain Valley School in Vermont, a program with rising prominence. Under coach Kirk Dwyer, GMVS had been developing a track record of moving athletes onto the national team, like then rising-star Doug Lewis.
“He was the cocky kid coming up behind me at GMVS.” said Lewis, who had graduated but still lived nearby. He had huge goals and loved being on a team — some place where he could be a part of something and feed off the energy.”
In his second year, he aligned with former GMVS and U.S. Ski Team athlete Mark Rolfes, who became a lifelong friend. Rolfes had taken over as Rossignol’s eastern junior race manager and was looking for student-athletes to test skis. Kitt and his GMVS teammate, the late Eric Keck, were first in line.
“I said, ‘Hey, we’ll test skis,’” recalled Kitt. “It was a chance to be on the hill at 7 a.m. and go bombing. Every Tuesday we would get with Rolfes and run these skis in on a test track. After this repetition, Eric and I were getting some great glide training.”
Rolfes and Randy Graves ran the glide tracks. But they also worked to get discarded skis from the national team and bring them back to life. The young skiers learned the nuances of how to find speed.
“The glide tracks we would do were extremely valuable,” said Dwyer. “The transference of wisdom from one group to another was vital.”
Kitt and his teammates took that knowledge into races at Mount Snow, Gore Mountain and Sugarloaf. Their education started to show.
“We were doing pretty well,” said Kitt. “That second year at GMVS I won a downhill then made it to Junior Nationals — I think I was fourth maybe. Kyle Rasmussen was in the top three and some older guys who were winning races. So I felt pretty good being a nobody getting fourth place. That was my turning point. I was getting confidence.”
Kitt graduated from GMVS in 1986. But he felt a very positive momentum working with Dwyer. So he banded together with nine other athletes to hire their coach away from GMVS. “The 10 of us skied as independents that season and four of us made the U.S. Ski Team by the next spring (1987),” said Kitt. “I’m pretty sure that was the first private team in the history of ski racing.”
While Kitt had graduated from GMVS, Dwyer’s band of athletes continued to train there. Lewis, who had graduated a few years earlier, still lived in town. It became a melting pot of present and future downhillers, with a young freshman Daron Rahlves also arriving at GMVS.
“Daron saw what it took working out with those older guys,” said Dwyer.
Introduction to Europe
That year proved to be a pivotal next step for Kitt, branching out from the USSA Eastern region and expanding his horizons around the globe. One of the key components was Dwyer taking his young athletes to Europe to train and race including a fall camp in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.
“It really helped bring down our points,” said Kitt. “It was a period where I was really learning how to be a downhiller.”
At only 18, Kitt was showing maturity and sense of leadership. Dwyer tells a story of his van full of racers in 1987. He dropped Kitt and others off in Lenk im Simmental, Switzerland for a super G. He then drove on with the tech skiers to an event in Malbun, Liechtenstein. After the races, he drove back to Lenk. All had gone well, with Kitt winning his age in what was his first super G.
“To me, the story is significant because AJ was well trained and well prepared,” said Dwyer. “He was very independent, too, and that’s an important part of his persona.”
That 1986-87 season was pivotal for Kitt and others in many ways. USSA Western Region coach Tim LeMarche invited Dwyer’s athletes and others to walk-on camp at Mt. Bachelor, Oregon in May 1987. Club and U.S. Ski Team coaches were there to watch and rank aspiring athletes.
“Even though there were athletes from different parts of the country, there was a great sense of collaboration working with Swampy (LeMarche),” recalled Dwyer. “Our Eastern skiers were not good in the air. The old course at Bachelor had six jumps per run. From that camp and race series, you saw these guys emerge.”
“That walk-on camp at Mt. Bachelor was where I really learned how to glide,” said Kitt. “I was becoming a downhiller!”
The camp came at a time when the team was putting together a development speed program. “We would do spring camps, summer camps and take athletes to Europe,” said LeMarche. “Kirk (Dwyer) was one of the guys who really bought into what we were trying to do.”
It was a time when the downhill talent pool was growing. “AJ took the lead in that group,” said LeMarche. “Those guys were so competitive against each other — it just kept leapfrogging and leapfrogging.”
The life of a D-Team athlete was traveling in a jam-packed VW van around Europe, with seven or eight guys sitting on top of their gear. “I remember one day AJ won the downhill at the Italian Junior Championships in Cervinia (Italy),” said LeMarche. “They gave him this giant trophy and all I could think about was, ‘How are we going to get that into the van?’” LeMarche didn’t have to worry. After they took Kitt’s photo with the big trophy, they took it away and gave him a coffee cup.
“We had a pretty good pipeline going,” said LeMarche. “Not everybody was going to win. But it’s important that everybody was there. A team succeeds because of everyone.”
While no one knew it at the time, it was a formative team naming in 1987 between the C and D squads. Kitt was joined by his GMVS teammate, Keck, California skiers Kyle Rasmussen and Bill Hudson, Montana’s Jeff Olson and Tommy Moe from Alyeska, who had just taken silver at the 1987 Junior Worlds in Norway. They jumped onto a team of veterans, such as Vail’s Mike Brown, World Championship downhill medalist Doug Lewis and 1984 Olympic champion Bill Johnson, who was staging a comeback from injury.
The 1987-88 season started out like most others. The veterans headed to snow-starved Europe for the White Circus, while the rookies toured the NorAm circuit back home. This big-eyed group of high-speed, gliding downhillers were grinding it out in slalom and GS with their coach, the late Dan Bean, wanting them to work on their technical skills.
It was a rough winter for the U.S. stars. Lewis, the 1985 World Championship downhill bronze medalist, broke his collarbone. Mike Brown, who had been leading the team, broke his wrist. Johnson, who had been injured in the previous season, had been unable to find his form.
“With the injuries, the team still had quota spots in the World Cup, so they said, ‘Hey, let’s call these young guys over to Europe and give them some starts,’” said Kitt. “Olson and Hudson had been on the World Cup, but we had no experience.”
Attack from the back
To help with the young skiers, the U.S. Ski Team called on Bill Egan from Mammoth Mountain, who took a leave to join the group in Europe. “I was delighted to be there — learning a lot,” said Egan. “I was pretty stoked for these kids — young guys really trying to make it.”
Egan saw Kitt as a standout: He was “so focused on racing, so competitive. There were better guys who were better freeskiers. But no one was a better racer.”
The initial stop was Val d’Isere — his first time on a big World Cup hill. Next up was Garmisch-Partenkirchen, but there was no snow. Then, it was supposed to be Wengen, but lack of snow moved the event to Leukerbad, Switzerland for a pair of races on the eve of the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.
“It was really soft snow and the course got faster,” said Kitt, who started back in the 70s but came down 12th. “There was no scoreboard and I didn’t know how I had done. Then this big Italian guy, Michael Mair (who had won the race), came up and put his arm around me and said, ‘Hey, man, you’re in 12th.’ I thought, ‘Alright, this is great. This is how it’s going to go. I’m going to be really successful if it’s this easy.’”
The next day, Olson was 11th. Those were the best U.S. downhill World Cup finishes since Lewis had been ninth in Aspen the year before. Olson and Kitt were named to the 1988 Olympic team that went to Calgary, joining Hudson and Lewis.
“Calgary was surreal,” said Kitt. “I hadn’t given myself permission to dream about going to the Olympics. It was a brand new experience. I mean, two months earlier I was racing NorAms at Waterville Valley. And now, I’m here?”
He remembers walking into the opening ceremony. “I had never been around so many people in my life.” He recalls seeing big stars like bobsled pusher and Chicago Bears wide receiver Willie Gault, and German figure skating star Katerina Witt.
Kitt finished 26th with Olson 28th — the top American downhill finishers.
The fledgling Olympians found reality in 1988-89. One day, they were playing cards with Bill Johnson after skiing. “We got to talking to Bill about ‘What does it take? What’s the secret sauce,’” said Kitt. “We learned quickly that we had to form our own path. We were a bunch of young kids trying to unwind the mystery.”
Egan was now the men’s downhill coach, following Theo Nadig. Ueli Luthi was head men’s coach. “We had a strong nucleus with Kyle, Tommy, Hudson, Olson and myself. Reggie (Christ) came along, Keck and Andreas Rickenbach,” said Kitt.
A new era begins in Val d’Isere
Going into the 1989-90 season, Kitt was getting anxious, looking for payoff. In early February, the men headed for Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, an unusual venue for the men that came onto the schedule with a weather cancelation. Training started out well — Kitt was strong, very strong. But it didn’t go so well on the final day.
“I remember standing at the finish and thinking, ‘I’m over this,’” he said. “I’m sick of being mediocre. I was approaching the sport with a bit of caution and a bit of ‘OK, don’t make mistakes’ kind of thing.
“It ignited a fire in my belly — I can do better than this!”
The next day, Kitt went out and said, ‘Look out World Cup, I have arrived.’ He finished fourth, a mere hundredth behind Helmut Hoeflehner and a hundredth ahead of Pirmin Zurbriggen.
“I approached that day with a lot more conviction and a lot less concern for having a perfect run — I was just more balls out.”
On the heels of that season, Kitt came into 1990-91 ranked in the top seed (15th). He carried confidence and optimism into the opener in Val d’Isere. And it showed as he was top three every day in training, leading on the final run.
“After the final training run, I’m like, ‘Tomorrow’s my day. I’m going to win. I’m going to plant my flag in the ground right here.’ And I went out and finished maybe 20th. I got anxious and tight, and it set me back on my heels again.”
It was a hard setback to overcome. While he was consistently in the top 15, it wasn’t what he had hoped for. To top it all off, the U.S. invaded Kuwait in mid-January and the U.S. Ski Team pulled out of Europe for safety reasons on the eve of the World Championships in Saalbach, Austria. A skeleton team returned midway through the championships, but the downhill was already in the books.
Somehow, Kitt managed to hold on to his World Cup position going into the Olympic year. Arriving in Val d’Isere, the memories of a year earlier were still fresh in his mind. As training began, it was deja vu. Kitt dominated, just as he had a year before.
“I remember a conversation I had with Christin Cooper, who was there covering the race,” recalled Kitt. “She brought up what happened the previous year. She made me remember what it was like (when I was top four) in Cortina. I brought that forward to Val d’Isere in 1991. I recreated that fire in my gut. And I went out of the starting gate absolutely convicted.”
Kitt didn’t have a perfect run — rarely does that happen. But he won that race with a sense of purpose.
Coach Egan recalls Kitt as someone who could link his line better than anyone, keeping his skis in a beautiful, clean line. Kitt was known for his unique upright stance versus a deep tuck. “I wasn’t concerned because he had such a clean turn,” said Egan. “He could see the speed, feel the speed. I liked the way he moved his ankles and feet — it was like he was skipping across the terrain when he traversed.
“His skis were really flying that day,” said Egan. “We expected he had a chance for a great finish. Fatigue was never a consideration for AJ — he was never just ‘hanging on.’ He was firing the whole way down. It was a reflection of his conditioning.”
Egan was in The Meadows off the Collombin Jump as Kitt ripped through the section of sweeping super G turns. Coming off the flat, he had noticeably more speed than anyone. Coming down to the bottom he just nailed it.
“I made some mistakes but I won by a lot,” Kitt said. “I felt this was redemption. I won that race. It was the first time raising the trophy. But I really felt like I had earned it. There were no questions in my mind that I belonged there.”
“When AJ won in Val d’Isere, it just opened the floodgates,” said LeMarche, who four years earlier had seen the makings of a team in a group of teenage development athletes. A year later, Moe was on the podium. Three years later Rasmussen won at Wengen and Kvitfjell. Kitt was a regular contender. Soon, Rahlves was on the scene along with Chad Fleisher and then Bode Miller.
The world was now noticing the U.S. Ski Team. The media was abuzz about Kitt, from Olympic broadcaster CBS to The New York Times. An image of Kitt kicking out of the start in Val d’Isere graced the cover of Sports Illustrated.
What the media failed to fully grasp was that the Olympic downhill at Val d’Isere was a completely different course than where Kitt had won two months earlier. The Bernhard Russi-designed run down La Face de Bellevarde was not a favorite of the leading downhillers.
“I do remember trying to help people understand that the track I won on was not what we would race at the Olympics, but nobody wanted to hear that,” said Kitt. “They just wanted the story of the American who won the pre-Olympic race — that’s the golden story.”
Kitt had few expectations on Bellevarde. He finished 9th.
Changing the culture of sports marketing
The Val d’Isere win just before the Olympics was a marketing game-changer for Kitt. His career came at a time when sports marketing was evolving. The ability for brands to engage around the Olympics was new, thanks to decisions in the 1980s by the International Olympic Committee.
“AJ Kitt was a transitional character — not just for ski racing, but for sports marketing,” said his longtime agent Jon Franklin. Franklin, who now runs the World Pro Ski Tour, was a young agent at IMG at the time, running the venerable agency’s winter sports division. “One of my goals was to reset,” said Franklin. “We had Jean Claude Killy and Billy Kidd. But we needed new young guns.”
Franklin first met Kitt at the U.S. Alpine Championships in Crested Butte, Colorado. “Great guy – great personality. And he could really move the big skis around,” said Franklin. “But what I most saw was someone who was winning splits in World Cups. Killy had told me that if an athlete can win splits, they can win races.”
Franklin found a fertile field of sponsors for Kitt, who had the good fortune to hail from Rochester, home of blue chip brands like RayBan, Champion, Xerox and Kodak. McDonalds soon found its way onto Kitt’s full-face racing helmet. And then came Rolex, one of the world’s most notable luxury brands.
Kitt soon found his way onto red carpets and as a judge at the Miss Universe pageant. He became a media darling connecting ski racing with major global brands.
“AJ really led that new era, transcending skiing and breaking through into mainstream culture,” said Franklin.
Kitt also became a regular on World Cup downhill podiums. A year after Albertville, he took bronze in the World Championship downhill in snow Shizukuishi, just outside the Japanese city of Morioka. It was a landmark World Championships for the U.S. Ski Team, with medals for Kitt, Picabo Street and Julie Parisien.
The ones that got away
While the record books today show Kitt’s 11 World Cup podiums with one win, what they don’t show are the three that got away.
Even a quarter century later, go into any bar in Aspen, bring up ski racing and undoubtedly the conversation will turn to AJ Kitt. In his career, Kitt had the dubious distinction of winning three World Cup downhills — trophies, prize money and all — only to have the titles taken away on post-race decisions. Two of those came in Aspen (March 1993 and March 1995) and one in Val d’Isere (December 1992).
To be fair, it all came down to weather situations with shortened fields. But in each case, all of the top-seed athletes had run.
Kitt’s old friend Mark Rolfes remembers the day in 1993 — not so much for the drama of it, but more for what it said about Kitt as a person. “I was with Nordica then and I remember giving him a high five in the finish,” recalled Rolfes. “But what really impressed me was AJ donating some of his prize money to the Aspen Ski Club. He recognized how the younger athletes needed the funding. And then he put down money on the bar at Shlomo’s to thank the race crews.”
Three years ago, Kitt came back to Aspen for a fundraising race to raise money for the Aspen Valley Ski Club. He took his kids up to Ruthie’s Run to show them the historic race course, and to Shlomo’s to see the heralded Roch Cup that he won twice.
When Kitt reflects on the lost World Cups, he does so without malice. “I know in my heart of hearts, that no one else was going to beat me on those days,” he said. “I didn’t get the wins, but I have the trophies.”
While the trophies are on the wall behind him in his office, Kitt is quick to note that they don’t represent his legacy.
“To me, my career is not defined by Aspen,” he states resolutely. “I want to be known as the first American to win a World Cup in seven years, or the guy who was around long enough to go to four Olympics and win a World Championship medal.”
If he has one regret, it’s that he didn’t get to share a podium with a teammate. “A few years after I retired, Daron and Bode shared a podium at Beaver Creek. That was a really nice moment for me to see. I just wanted to be able to say, ‘American ski racing is more than just one person. Those guys were able to cement that in. It says a lot for the caliber of sport in a country”
Following his 1998 retirement, Kitt initially landed in Steamboat Springs, Colo. for two years before settling down in Hood River, Ore. in 2000. Today, he’s a successful real estate agent. His wife, Amy, works in property management. Together, they’re youth sports parents, managing ski racing, lacrosse, dance and more for their two 14-year old daughters and son (yes, triplets).
In 2003 he was inducted into the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame.
Pied Piper of NASTAR
One of the ways Kitt has given back to his sport was serving for 19 years as a national pacesetter for NASTAR, traveling the country meeting thousands of aspiring racers.
“What I most loved about NASTAR was its raw enthusiasm,” said Kitt. “With the U.S. Ski Team, we were a professional team. But with NASTAR, it’s just this spirit for the sport that keeps them coming back day after day. I learned to appreciate a different kind of enthusiasm.”
“The thing that kept AJ coming back year after year was the people,” said NASTAR Director Bill Madsen. “AJ is the most competitive person I have ever met. He established relationships everywhere we went. And when the races were over, he would tell stories to the next generation of racers. The racing was always fun, but the results didn’t count as much as the connections he made and the ski racing lore that was left behind.”
The family of ski racing
When you talk with AJ today, he never talks about his career without drawing in others.
“I can’t take the credit for it alone,” he said. “I got inspired by people who were there before me — people whose names aren’t that well known. If you pay attention to the American Downhiller series, it says a lot about the culture of the U.S. Ski Team and where it got built. It was a rag tag group in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We were still a little rag tag in the late ‘80s. Johnson winning the Olympics. Lewie getting his bronze. I take a lot of pride in my role. But I give a lot of credit to Tommy (Moe) and Kyle (Rasmussen) and the others for their part in it. And to Daron, Chad (Fleischer) and Bode for picking up the baton after we left and making it even better.”
Today, Kitt’s life is still consumed with sport. He coaches the nearby Meadows Race Team. He served on the board of the Pacific Northwest Ski Association for a few years. His triplets, Aksel, Ayden and Ava, are a joy for him.
In his days at Mountain House and GMVS he learned the importance of team and building success together. He learned life lessons from ski racing that serve him well, as a parent and a businessman.
When asked to cite one word that best embodies what he took away from ski racing, he pauses. “Persistence,” he stated. “It’s about picking yourself up when you have a setback. Going to the gym when you don’t feel like it.”
Most of all, when Kitt looks back on the contribution of his generation of U.S. Ski Team athletes, he sees the pathway to today.
“That basis for having a powerful foundation for our team carried forward to become Daron, Bode Lindsey and where we’re at today with Ted and Mikaela,” he said.
“So I feel really good. We came from not much in the late ‘80s. We started to build a culture of expecting to win. We weren’t there — we were just hoping to survive. But by ‘93 we were expecting to win. That’s a big change in five years.”
His mind flashes back to the lessons he learned and the success he achieved by not giving up on himself. He reflects on his overconfidence at Val d’Isere in 1990 and the lessons he took into his win a year later that ignited a spark — not just for AJ Kitt, but for decades of American Downhillers yet to come.
“It’s about believing in yourself and doing the right things for the right reasons.”