One of the most persistent ski racers on the planet, Aspen’s Wiley Maple had defied the odds for nearly a decade on the World Cup. But earlier this season in Bormio, Italy, the 29-year-old had reality hit him pretty hard.
He knew then his career was over.
“I did the first training run in Bormio and that was the most terrified I’d ever been and the most uncomfortable and destroyed after a race course I’d ever been,” Maple told The Aspen Times on Thursday. “Just walking back to the hotel, I was in complete shock at how insane that had just been and how lucky I was to be walking back to the hotel.”
Maple has dealt with a bad back for years, an injury that has been as persistent has he had been over his career, and it finally won out. After a long stint on the World Cup and a start in the 2018 Winter Olympic downhill, Maple officially announced Thursday he was retiring from competitive ski racing.
“I definitely have just procrastinated letting the world know,” Maple said. “I definitely wanted to let it sink in a little bit for myself. I had a flight back to Europe and I gave myself a week and a half of time at home before I made the full conclusion and canceled that flight back to Europe.”
Maple said his back problems began when he was 19 and already knocking on the door of the World Cup. Over the past 10 years he’s had three microdisectomys, a minimally invasive surgery to fix a herniated lumbar disc in the back. This procedure has helped from time to time, but Maple is at the point where he needs a spinal fusion, which is a more permanent solution to his ongoing pain.
He’s hoping to have the operation done later in the spring.
“What I’ve been told is a fusion is the end of a competitive racing career. And that’s pretty much the only option,” Maple said. “I was just trying to be successful and try and find a place in my head and in my body where I was in a comfortable enough place to actually go race and be competitive and Bormio basically opened my eyes that it wasn’t going to be possible.”
Maple, who grew up skiing through the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, made his World Cup debut in January 2011. According to his FIS page, he’s recorded 71 official World Cup starts over the past nine years, all in downhill, super-G or combined. His best career World Cup finish was 17th in a 2015 downhill in Saalbach, Austria.
A member of the U.S. Ski Team on and off over his career, Maple often did his best when he flew solo, as difficult as that was. These past few seasons he’s competed as an independent racer, finding his own funding to keep his dream alive. Even in 2018, when he competed in the Olympics, he wasn’t officially part of the U.S. national team that season.
Injuries plagued Maple over the decade, often leaving him starting the season from the bottom of the pecking order.
“At the moment I’m incredibly bummed about my career. I just didn’t think any of my results really reflected what I was capable of,” Maple said. “I just never had momentum. I just wish some of that energy and perseverance and all that would have taken me up the ladder. I could have started midway one season and then fought to the top. Instead I was always starting from the bottom every year.”
Despite the struggles and the current anguish of having to call it quits, Maple can still find some silver lining and believes he’ll see it differently in the future.
“I’m certainly proud of how successful I was and for how much injury I had and how little support from the national team, specifically, I had,” Maple said. “Growing up and having these dreams — I’m not sure when they started — but I guess to a degree I certainly accomplished my dreams and goals. I think with time I’ll be a lot more proud of my racing career and what I’ve done.”
Maple said the spinal fusion will end his competitive ski racing career, but should make it easier — and less painful — to freeski. After returning home from the Bormio race just before the New Year and after canceling his return trip to Europe, Maple joined Baker Boyd for a few days of powder skiing in Japan. Boyd is a noted big mountain skier from Aspen and one of Maple’s close childhood friends.
Maple doesn’t know what his future holds — he plans to finish his philosophy degree over the next year — but certainly won’t stop skiing anytime soon.
“I have tons of plans, I just have no idea what I’m going to do,” Maple said with a laugh. “Obviously a massive thank you to the entire community and my parents and everybody who made the last 10 to 15 years possible. I would have been done long ago if it weren’t for the support of this community and all my friends and family.”