In 1988, when 19-year old AJ Kitt headed to the first of his four Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada, the US Ski Team was not seen as a downhill threat, or really a threat in any discipline, by the rest of the ski racing world. However, the barrier, once broken by American skier Bill Johnson with his World Cup and Olympic victories in 1984, continued to fall thanks to the determination of the skiers that followed, such as Kitt.
By the time of Kitt’s second Olympics, in Albertville, France, rolled around in 1992, the downhiller was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the best (or sole, according to SI) medal hope for the US men in skiing, as only the second American man after Johnson ever to win a World Cup downhill. Kitt took the pressure in stride, confidently stating to the magazine that it was just a logical progression.
Although Kitt didn’t take home any medals from the Olympics, with a top finish of 9th in the downhill in Albertville, his strong presence in ski racing included six World Cup podiums, 21 WC top-ten finishes and helped mark a new era for the Americans, one in which the US was no longer an afterthought behind the traditional, dominating European teams. Today, Kitt works with the NASTAR program to help promote and inspire ski racers of all ages, and to keep promoting American ski racing. We caught up with him as the 2014 Sochi games open to find out his thoughts on American ski racing and the Olympics today.
You are currently a pacesetter for NASTAR; what else do you do to promote ski racing during the year?
I interact with thousands of enthusiastic racers each year working with the NASTAR program. This is my primary undertaking in the sport of ski racing. I also work with various junior racing programs around the country each winter doing some coaching, and trying to inspire those racers to chase their dreams.
What kind of reaction do you get from young ski racers when they meet an Olympian in real life?
Well, after they check with Google to see who the heck I am, and they realize I’m as old as their parents, I get a few blank stares and a lot of questions about my best time ever, and how fast I have gone on skis. Did I ever win a gold medal? I think the most impactful thing they get is that when you’ve been to 4 Olympics, they say, “That’s a lot!”
Did you have a particular coach who had a great influence on you as a racer?
All my coaches throughout my career had an impact on my success. I tried to take away something positive and helpful from every coaching experience I had.
Is there a difference in the role models you had growing up as a ski racer in the US, and the role models that little kids have today when they look at the US team?
I think that is more a matter of perspective. As an 8-year old watching [Austrian] Franz Klammer win in Innsbruck, all I saw was a guy who refused to give up, and just went as fast as possible. Now, as an adult and father of three, I am looking more closely at the personal conduct of athletes as role models.
How much has the level of US racing changed since your first WC downhill victory?
I think that the American team today is widely regarded as a win threat any given day on the World Cup tour. However, we lack the depth that the power-house teams have, such as Austria, France, and Italy.
Do you think that all of the security concerns and media hubbub surrounding these Sochi Olympics are going to affect the athletes?
I think they are probably insulated from that stuff. If they are concentrating on their job, they should not be affected by any press.