Wiley Maple is known around town as just another local kid. On the international ski racing circuit, he’s become a serious threat. Last week, in what skiracing.com is calling a “major upset,” Maple came from the 34th start to win the Europa Cup men’s downhill at Val d’Isere, France. Currently ranked 71st worldwide in men’s downhill, Maple is anything but an overnight success. He strapped on his first pair of skis when he was about 2 years old.
“My first pair of skis was the Disney special with Donald Duck on them, about 2 feet long,” the 22-year-old said via email from Italy, where he’s preparing for his next race. “You’d have to confirm that with my parents.”
His mom doesn’t remember Donald Duck on the skis, but she remembers they were green.
“They were too big for him when he first got them,” Julie Maple recalls. “His favorite thing to do was stand next to them on the floor, step into his skis, and pretend to race.”
Wiley began racing with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club at age 10, and quickly rose through the ranks. He was Junior National Champion in 2007, Colorado Cup Downhill Champion in 2008, and North American (NorAm) Downhill Champion in 2011. Last season, his first in World Cup racing, he placed 29th overall.
Maple had surgery last spring on a patella tendon that was 50 percent torn, a surgery that can end a career. Then in November, while still recovering from the surgery, he broke his hand and had to undergo an eighth hand surgery.
“With so many injuries piling up, my mental stability for the sport wavered and I began to question whether or not it was worth it to continue,” the 2008 Aspen High School grad said. “Free skiing over Christmas and getting the pins out of my hand kindled a new fire, and I returned to Europe ready to race for the first time all year.”
And race he did, beating Switzerland’s Ralph Weber and Austria’s Frederic Berthold for the top of the podium. Maple, who cites Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves as role models, said downhill ski racing is something you have to experience to truly understand.
“Racing a World Cup downhill track is like nothing else on the planet,” he said. “The nerves of knowing you’re going to have to navigate a frozen mountain at 90 mph are immense. Where a mistake can mean more than losing a race, but potentially be season/career ending, the stakes are high. On course I am completely in the moment, I know where I want to go ... but things change throughout the run and it becomes reaction. A combination of charging forward, moving with the hill and just barely holding on and surviving it.”
Julie Maple has a different perspective on her son’s racing career.
“As a mother, it’s a frightful thing to watch your son go racing down the side of a mountain,” she said. “But he’s following his dream, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
While some may be calling Maple’s win an upset, it’s not that surprising considering his results from the past two seasons. He placed sixth in a European downhill two years ago, and he’s won several NorAms, beating athletes who consistently place in the top 10 in World Cup races.
“After the Christmas break I was racing almost exclusively Europa Cup and consistently had top-five splits, but was unable to put a full run together,” Maple said. “In the training runs prior to my win I was finishing top 10 with big mistakes, and knew if I put a full run together I could be in there. I don’t think this win really changes anything. I have to keep moving forward, the win was just the next step in the process. A Europa Cup is a big win because there are so many high-level athletes competing.”
Maple and all his Roaring Fork Valley supporters celebrated his victory, but he thinks it meant a little more to his two most important fans.
“I think it was biggest for my parents,” he said. “They knew the most (about) the extent of my injuries and the kind of funk I was in. Winning the Europa Cup race just helped confirm that I was out of (the funk) and back in the game.”
Maple has received a tremendous amount of support from the local community. When he first started racing with the U.S. Ski Team his expenses were covered. That changed last year when “B” Team athletes were required to pay their own way. Maple suddenly needed to raise $22,000 to pay for the spot he worked so hard to earn. Through several fundraisers, the community came out in droves to support the ski racing phenom.
“But for the incredible support of the community, (the cost) would fall to us,” said Mike Maple, Wiley’s dad and a former ski racer. “Being able to have 350 people show up on a given night is an unbelievable demonstration of support. ... He’s accomplished light years more than I ever did. I’m incredibly proud of him.”
Wiley’s talent, dedication, and focus may have gotten him where he is today, but he acknowledges all his coaches and the entire Aspen community for helping him progress from Donald Duck skis to the top of the podium in alpine racing.
“Growing up in Aspen was by far the biggest contributor (to my career), just a love of skiing and being in the mountains led me to where I am now,” Maple said. “I am so lucky... Without the help of the Aspen community, there is no way I would still be in the sport. It means everything to have them behind me.”
And Maple’s goals don’t stop with World Cup racing.
“For sure the Olympics are a big dream,” he said. “Between now and next year, I have to train hard over the summer and keep focus when I’m racing. Hopefully I can put a few more runs together and I’ll be on track.”
Doug Allen is thoroughly impressed and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .