Shortly after his run, just before mounting the most important podium of his career—and the first World Championships downhill podium for the U.S. since 2005—Travis Ganong was already thinking of powder. In particular, the two feet of powder that had hit the slopes at home in Lake Tahoe the night before. "I've dreamed of being here, and I'm here, and I love to ski," Ganong said, before linking that thought to one he seemed every bit as excited about: "And I get to go ski powder in a day and a half when I go home!"
Few racers love every aspect of skiing as purely or as visibly as Ganong, a guy immediately distinguishable from his competitors by the bright-yellow Tide sticker on his helmet (or, off skis, baseball cap). Many top racers have been in gates since they were small children; for them, the joy of skiing was always in a racecourse, not out in the trees or moguls or jumps. And even for those who did grow up playing out of gates, at a certain point in your career, it's all too easy to get razor-focused on what is, after all, your job. To ignore the powder days, because every day spent free skiing in the loose stuff is a day spent not training. To avoid jumps, because a fall could crush a burgeoning career. To zero in on the medals, the results, the sponsorships, because that's what a career and an income pivots on, not to mention what everyone else is focusing on, too. In other words, to see skiing as the career and the sacrifice that, at the top level, it certainly is—and, perhaps, to forget why a racer put those skis on in the first place.
But Ganong, the 26-year-old Squaw Valley native, isn't punching a clock just yet.
"When are you serious?" the moderator asked him at his press conference. "Never!" Ganong said, only half-joking. "Why? Life's so fun. Life is, hopefully, like a never-ending powder run. Or a perfect downhill, like today."
Because that's the secret to Ganong's approach: when he's having as much fun on an icy, 34-degree pitch as he does in Tahoe powder, he's probably winning.
For a casual observer of ski racing, Ganong came out of nowhere. His silver today is the biggest win of his career. But those with a closer eye on the sport have seen him coming for a while. After several seasons of spotty results—up through the 2013 season, his World Cup results found the top 10 only twice, and contained a healthy number of DNFs, which can be caused by either a crash or missing a turn—last season, he started to pull it together. In his last eight World Cup races of the season, he placed top 10 in every one, save for two DNF's.
And then there was Sochi, when he finished fifth in the downhill. It wasn't quite speedy enough to get him a medal, or much recognition from anyone but the most avid fans, but it was definitely a signal to the other top athletes: Ganong was starting to put it together.
He really showed that for the first time this season, grabbing his first-ever downhill gold at Santa Caterina, Italy, in December.
When I called him a couple of weeks later, he answered his phone from his exercise bike, where he was getting his blood pumping after a training run for the world-(in)famous Kitzbühel downhill. "I haven't really changed anything," he said, panting slightly. "It's just the culmination of many years of working hard in the summer, getting stronger, staying healthy, and just gaining more experience on these tracks." He added, as if you could forget his California roots, "It's a good groove."
But the Santa Caterina victory may actually have messed up his mounting mojo. On the plus side, Ganong said, "I finally realized I can win on the highest level." But that realization meant pressure. "The next couple races after that, I was pushing way too hard. I was trying way too hard to replicate that result," he said. "It was kind of a mental battle to figure out how to get myself back into a position where I can be winning races."
On Saturday, he won that mental battle. He admitted he barely slept the night before—the pressure of clinching a medal in front of the home crowd. "But I woke up and I was like, 'OK, I've skied my whole life, I've trained so hard the last couple years, I love to ski. Let's just go out and have some fun. And all day long I was super-relaxed and having a good time."
Today, Ganong hit it. He attacked the course, smoking down 2,400 vertical feet of elevation (read: some 240 stories) in one minute, 43.42 seconds. And the whole time, it looked like he'd never wanted to win anything as much as he wanted to win this race. He was fast on every turn, throwing his skis across the hill, continually fighting for that high line that made all the difference between the day's winners and losers.
And he was solid: Although the absurd speeds (Ganong was clocked at 77 mph—that's 113 feet per second) and bumps in the course meant that many of the men's skis "chattered", or vibrated, making it hard to grip a clean edge in the snow, Ganong looked relatively anchored, his edges strong, refusing to be thrown by the vibrations that came at him—a signature of his style when he's at his best. He landed each jump near-flawlessly, including not only big jumps (like the Golden Eagle, which launched him about 210 feet through the air—nearly three-quarters the length of a football field), but also a handful of more minor, but still crucial, rolls. One of these happened just above an especially quick turn, meaning that Ganong and the other racers had to make a direction change with their skis in mid-air to land going the way they wanted.
But as aggressive as he was, he didn't seize up. He didn't stiffen. He didn't psych himself out. Instead, he looked like he was having the run of his life—and, maybe, even enjoying it.
"Skiing is the most fun thing you can do," he said, beaming that same giant smile he'll probably have once he gets home to his powder. "When it works out well in a venue and a stadium like this, it's really special."
Freelance journalist Amanda Ruggeri, a former ski racer, writes for publications including the BBC, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. After nearly five years of living (and skiing) in Italy, she now lives in Brooklyn, where she has learned that when it snows, her new neighbors do not share her enthusiasm.