There was a time last season when Wiley Maple thought maybe he should just hang up his downhill skis.
The dream year on the FIS World Cup he’d envisioned with best friend from Aspen, Sam Coffey as technician and traveling buddy, started with high hopes but was challenged immediately by a broken hand, inopportune wind gusts in Canada and getting yellow-flagged off two fabled European racecourses.
Maple scored three World Cup points last year, awarded two top-30 finishers, from a downhill race in Val Gardena, Italy, his favorite venue. He’s currently ranked 95th in the world in downhill and 113th in super-G, according to the most recent International Federation de Ski (FIS) points list.
The 29-year-old said he will return for an 11th season on the World Cup “and my status is unaffiliated as usual.”
U.S. Skiing provides no financial contributions but does allow access to some training opportunities and support from the national team when he makes criteria.
Maple says he believes his best racing days may be ahead.
“The big reason I keep going is, I feel like I can accomplish more in the sport,” he said recently. Maple finished 30th in the Olympic downhill in 2016, and has NorAm and national titles to his credit.
The memory of Sam Coffey, his friend from childhood racing days, fellow ski gang founder and “Freak,” who died May 20, is a powerful motivator to keep going. He received a call that Coffey had succumb to a series of strokes, while Maple was coaching at the American Downhiller camp at Mammoth Mountain. The men had been together with other friends in Mexico earlier that week.
“Sam is a big reason why I’m going again. I’m also doing it for myself and everyone else,” Maple said.
Maple dropped to the snow in grief upon hearing the news, a pall shared by Aspen’s close-knit ski community as well as an alpine racing community with international tentacles.
Rare luck, not the good kind
Johno McBride, then men’s speed coach of the U.S. Ski Team, said it’s rare for one competitor to get flagged off a World Cup downhill course twice in a season.
McBride was a witness to what happened to Maple in early 2019, first on the tour’s longest downhill in Wengen, Switzerland, and again at the famed Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuhel, Austria. Both reruns were caused by course or racer issues unrelated to Maple.
“It’s super unfortunate that happened. Rare to have that kind of luck,” said McBride. In Wengen, Maple received a helicopter ride to the top of the course and ran his rerun on skis devoid of their fast wax and with much of the racer’s adrenaline already spent. When flagged off the Hahnenkamm course, his split times were “in the hunt for the top 10,” Maple said bitterly.
McBride opined, “Wiley’s due for some good luck.” The coach has returned as alpine director at Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club following two years with the national team.
After the 2018-19 alpine season mercifully closed, Maple was initially on the fence about returning for another World Cup season.
Self-funded but offered some limited resources though the U.S. Ski Team, Maple and a technician’s annual costs of between $50,000 and $70,000 are met through fundraising.
That ski and boot sponsor Atomic strongly supported his return, telling him they would provide “whatever you need,” also factored into his decision.
“The biggest part of ski racing is the equipment,” Maple said, noting he’ll be going this fall to Atomic’s factory to get new boots built and “pick up my fleet of 14 or 15 new pairs of skis.”
‘Fun to coach’
Johno McBride’s replacement as the U.S. Ski Team’s head men’s speed coach is Randy Pelkey, who coached Maple back when he was a development team member. Pelkey said he has known Maple and his family since 2006 and praised him for his “good attitude, work ethic” and said he is “fun to coach.”
“Wiley’s strength has always been that he has great heart and natural ability as a skier,” Pelkey said Friday in an email. “At the development team level, we identified some technical issues that have improved. Line has never been an issue — Wiley knows where the speed is.”
Pelkey had a chance to observe how Maple was skiing when he joined the U.S. Ski Team speed training in Chillan, Chile from Aug. 23-29. While in Coralco during September, Maple had some coaching and training opportunities with the German team.
When on-snow work at Copper Mountain begins in early November, Pelkey said Maple will be included with the U.S. Team members “when our daily training numbers allow.”
“We want to make sure he has some preparation for starting World Cup downhill, while at the same time maintaining high quality for the named U.S. Ski Team athletes,” Pelkey said.
Pelkey added that, “Any World Cup race he qualifies to start, he will be considered part of the team and treated as such.”
The head coach provided a link to the U.S. Ski Team’s Criteria for named athletes.
Filling the technician role that Sam Coffey provided last season is Will Gregorak, who said he started about 20 World Cup races during his career before retiring to study at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. There, he recently earned a degree in philosophy, which is also Maple’s major.
In this post-college gap year when he’ll join the White Circus, Gregorak said, “My capacity is mostly a technician and a coach when needed.”
Gregorak said he recognizes the special bond that Maple and Coffey shared and was awestruck at the turnout for Coffey’s memorial service on Aspen Mountain in May that attracted an estimated 1,000 people.
“I knew Sam since I was 10 years old. In some of my first races he was one of the best skiers,” said Gregorak, who lives in Longmont and grew up racing for Team Summit and clubs in Eldora and Vail.
“Going to Sam’s funeral meant a lot, to a lot of us. It was the first time all of the people we raced with growing up were together,” he said. “Wiley means a lot to the Colorado ski community. He’s doing it in the face of the U.S. Ski Team,” Gregorak added.
Gregorak considers himself an “honorary Freak,” a nod to the Aspen-grown ski group of local 25-to-30-year-olds. Maple describes the Freaks as, “Our crew of friends that likes to ski, bike and party occasionally. Our mentality is to charge hard.”
The Freaks’ genus is also identifiable by their hats made by Ski Town All-Stars that gained added popularity after Coffey’s passing. “People have run into people wearing Freaks hats all over the world,” Maple said. According to first-person reports, those sightings included Europe and Mexico this summer.
Also world-renowned were some of the exploits shared by best pals Coffey and Maple last season. A story published in The New Yorker by Nick Paumgarten, “The Wild Carnival at the Heart of Skiing’s Most Dangerous Race,” captured some of the off-snow entertainment on the World Cup shared by the duo. Several of those tales were also shared during Coffey’s memorial.
“Sam had a pretty good tour,” Maple said, with a laugh.
“I definitely think of him every day. We’ve dealt with a lot of death in our lives compared to most people,” he said.
Maple is at home for a few more days after spending a month in the Southern Hemisphere seeking training opportunities. Gregorak joined Maple in Chile for the first two weeks of September, chasing snow after areas in the northern mountains where teams usually train, such as Portillo, La Parva and Valle Nevada, were exceptionally dry. Eventually, Maple and Gregorak made it south to Corralco where the snow was soft, but at least the trails were covered.
Gregorak noted an aspect of Maple’s racing that coach Randy Pelkey also pointed out: “Charging through intense sections of courses” but losing time when it came to easier, gliding sections of a run.
That’s some fine-tuning Maple’s new colleague hopes to address, noting he has no plans for wholesale changes to the athlete’s approach. That, coupled with Gregorak’s close eye on ski preparation, could bode well for the season.
“I’m a bit of a freak about it. Neurotic when it comes to edges and bases,” Gregorak said.
Johno McBride said that, especially in light of his travails last year, he hopes Maple can achieve some of his long-sought-after goals this year.
“I’m proud of Wiley,” McBride said. “He’s shown his dedication and motivation to make it happen regardless of support from the team.”