Mayer skis to silver at lightspeed

DEER VALLEY, Utah -- At high noon, on yet another bluebird day at Deer Valley, a kid from Buffalo, N.Y., stole the hearts of the American fans drooling for a Moseley medal. Travis Mayer, a 19-year-old rookie on the U.S. ski team, stood in first place after the qualifying round.

"Hooray for the flatlanders!" someone yelled.

The crowd of more than 14,000 peered up into the sun, eyeing the vicious span of moguls climbing toward the sky, anxiously awaiting the finals.
Meanwhile, Mayer's parents, Lynn and John, camped out to the left of the course, swallowed up by almost 50 of their close personal friends and family.

"My husband is hiding in the back somewhere," said Lynn, who cooked spaghetti for 34 people during the Mayer family pep rally Monday night. "He's dressed in the same clothes he wore when Travis won the Gold Cup. Right down to his underwear, even. And he won't carry a sign because he wants to do everything exactly the way he did it last time."

Jeff Wintersteen, the head coach, had known something the Jonny Moseley-mad crowd didn't.

"Travis Mayer could take the whole thing," he said at the women's moguls press conference Sunday. "Jonny Moseley could just be our media blocker."

Even with Jonny absorbing all the rays of fame's blistering spotlight, Mayer couldn't even eat this morning. He was a Gorgorian knot of nerves. "Travis' appetite is normally monumental," said team chef Dennis Gavigan (a.k.a. the Director of Caloric Intake). "But I had to loosen him up just so he'd get down some strawberry pancakes."

Shannon Bahrke had been there since 8 a.m., hoping her silver-medal vibes would rub off on her teammates. Her enthusiasm roaring even during the qualifying round, she clanked her cowbell and whooped it up, her cheeks screaming "Go USA!" in red and blue. Teammate Hannah Hardaway also was on hand with her fiancé, Brian "Curdog" Currutt, whose aerials competition starts Saturday.

"Travis is my pick," said Curdog, to Hannah's hearty agreement. As the finals got under way, with competitors skiing in reverse order of rank, neither of them gave Moseley much of a shot, despite the squealing girls waving signs asking Jonny to marry them. "The judges like his Dinner Roll," she said. "It's his skiing that's the problem. Those two years he took off really hurt his chances."

She went on to explain that his skiing hasn't evolved since Nagano: "He's still trying to edge on the bumps, which no one else does anymore. You have to stay centered, with as little movement as possible. His way, he's not quick enough."

Jonny knew it. No way a 30-second run was going to cut it. So Moseley attacked his final run, seemingly fueled by his loyal crew of shrieking fans, some shirtless -- and bright red -- in the stands. Maybe he hadn't evolved. But somehow, old-school Jonny actually looked like the Moseley of old. Amidst the fervent chants of "Moseley!," he shaved two seconds off his time, nailing his Dinner Roll and grabbing first place with a 26.78.

The Nagano redux didn't last, however. As the heavier hitters soared down the course, grabbing huge air with their quad twisters and heli X's, Jonny held on as long as he could but finally slipped to second with four riders to go.

Silver was still within Moseley's grasp when the second-to-last skier, Janne Lahtela, hit the course. Lahtela finished right behind Jonny in '98, and saw his chance for revenge. He didn't squander the opportunity, scorching down the bumps. When the screen flashed his time, an unfathomable 26.55, Mayer's teammates blinked at each other in disbelief.

Suddenly, Mayer wasn't in such an enviable position. The kid from Buffalo stood at the top of the mogul minefield, realizing that he had to rip down the course to come close to catching the Finn. When Lahtela's score was announced as a 27.97, Bahrke held her stomach, clearly queasy. "I'm getting ill because I know how he's feeling up there," she said. "But actually, I wasn't even close to being this anxious during my run."

Over the loudspeaker, the announcer intoned: "Olympian ready. 3. 2. 1. GOOOOO!!"

Mayer leaned forward. But his skis seemed coated with glue out of the starting blocks. As much as he wanted to shift into overdrive, he couldn't get out of first gear. Though his first jump was a monster heli X, Mayer knew it in his bones: His time was too slow.

So Travis Mayer channeled Franz Klammer. And like the fearless Austrian downhiller, Mayer stops fighting the speed, and lets his skis drag him down the course, his body as limp as a ragdoll roped to a rocket. Bahrke gasps for a moment, then resumes holding her breath. As Mayer blasts through the middle section of the course, he seems Matrix quick. In fact, Mayer rips it so fast he ekes out only a triple twister on his second jump, instead of the quad he'd planned. But time still bent to his will.

Mayer crosses the finish line.

The time? 26.62.

The stands shook and the fans yelled, but Bahrke held her hands up to her mouth. Would the judges dock Mayer for his aborted second trick? As his run came up on the instant-replay screen, the roars died down. But even in slo-mo, Mayer looked lightspeed.

Then, the camera cut to Travis. His expectant face angled off toward the giant screen TV.

The score? 27.59.

The Mayer clan erupts. Silver is gold.

Turns out, a flatlander can be king of the hill, too.

Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.