Aspen ski racer Wiley Maple overcomes odds en route to first Winter Olympics | AspenTimes.com

Aspen ski racer Wiley Maple overcomes odds en route to first Winter Olympics

Wiley Maple's moment of clarity came early this season at Mammoth Mountain. The Aspen ski racer dipped over to the California ski resort prior to the start of training camp with the U.S. Ski Team in Chile, the first time he had been on snow in more than a year.

Freeskiing up in Mammoth's famed Cornice Bowl, it all made sense again.

"It was a pretty sweet little bump run," Maple said last week, "and I took two turns and popped over three moguls and landed and right when I did that, I was like, 'I'm so much better at skiing than I am at anything else in life.' It was kind of an obligation to keep going."

Maple, 27, recalled that moment while sitting through a snowstorm in Innsbruck, Austria, after his latest World Cup races. He was killing a few days waiting to head to South Korea where he'll make his Olympic debut this weekend in Pyeongchang.

The Olympic men's downhill — tentatively scheduled for 7 p.m. mountain time Saturday — is just another race, according to Maple. But it's also the culmination of one of the best underdog stories at this year's Winter Olympics.

"The fact he made it to the Olympics is just so amazing," said Aspen's Sam Coffey, one of Maple's closest friends. "He fights so hard to keep going and he's just kind of the definition of a downhill racer. He skis fast and he's definitely a wild man and at times doesn't always listen to anyone beside himself. He kind of follows his own heart and path, which at times can be very different from the rest of the U.S. Ski Team."

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"I know Wiley has speed"

Between injuries and other off-snow issues, Maple has always had an on again, off again relationship with the U.S. Ski Team. More than once since he made his World Cup debut in 2011 has the U.S. decided to go in a different direction. In fact, Maple isn't officially on the U.S. Ski Team this winter.

And for Maple, who is known for blazing his own trail, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"He loves to ski," said Mike Maple, Wiley's father. "Being successful at most anything takes passion. Without passion you can't get through the bumps in the road. That's been a key feature for him, and certainly he's a stubborn kid and willing to do what it takes, but he's got to do it his way. He's not playing necessarily off the playbook."

Wiley Maple wasn't named to the U.S. Ski Team this year after missing the entire 2016-17 World Cup season. Between his kneecap and bad back, Maple seems to be hurt more often than not. Prior to this winter, his last legitimate competition came when he won the March 13, 2016 downhill at the Nor-Am Cup finals in Aspen.

If it weren't for men's U.S. speed team coach Johno McBride, another Aspen native and former Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club coach, Maple probably wouldn't have received an invite to train with the national team in Chile earlier this year.

"I wanted to have the opportunity to work with him," McBride said ahead of December's World Cup races in Beaver Creek. "I know Wiley has speed. I know he has speed and I know he thrives in challenging environments."

"It's been a long crawl back up"

Maple loves to mountain bike, and he's quite good at it. And after not being named to the U.S. team, he decided to forgo his usual summer of training in Park City, Utah — the home of U.S. Ski and Snowboard — to instead stay home in Aspen and do his own thing, which included a lot of brown pow.

"He loves Aspen, just like all of us. It always kind of bummed him out that he was missing summers in Aspen," Coffey said. "It was really nice having him back here for the summer. I think it kind of cleared his mind a little bit. He was definitely nervous about coming into this season. He didn't know if he was still going to have it."

After his summer in Aspen and reinvigorating interlude in Mammoth, Maple found his way to Chile with McBride and the U.S. Ski Team. To save money, he decided to spend time with the Korean national team — which is hosting this month's Olympic Games — where he helped run their dryland training and taught them American staples like ultimate Frisbee.

Despite not being on the U.S. Ski Team, Maple earned starts in the first speed events of the season: November's races in Lake Louise, Canada. It was hardly a dreamy return to the World Cup circuit for Maple, who struggled to remain relevant early in the season.

His breakthrough race came Dec. 28 in Bormio, Italy, where he finished 24th in a downhill for his first World Cup points since taking 24th in a super-G at the Olympic test event Feb. 7, 2016, in South Korea. Then, a few weeks later in Kitzbuehel, Austria, Maple finished in the top 30 in a super-G and downhill on consecutive days.

He was sweating out the Olympic selection process like the rest of the Americans, but finally got the call he was hoping for.

"It feels pretty good. That was definitely a goal for the season and obviously a life goal," Maple said. "Last year this time I didn't even know if I would be able to ski again. Couple months later I was crippled with another back injury and kicked off the team. It's been a long crawl back up and it's definitely pretty surreal that it's come together."

"My anxiety is whether or not he achieves his dreams"

Before they even reached their teens, Maple, Coffey and Baker Boyd founded what in recent years has come to be called "The Freaks," which according to their Instagram page (@the_freakstagram) is Aspen's fastest ski gang.

More than anything — other than skiing itself, of course — Maple likes to return home to be with "The Freaks," a group that has helped turn the 2008 Aspen High School graduate into the ski racer he is today.

"He's so passionate, not just about ski racing, but skiing in general. We would never miss a powder day," Coffey said. "We are always pushing each other. Even on fun days, we are always trying to ski as fast as we can."

Not long ago it seemed Maple was destined to return to full-time status with the local boys. Then, in quick succession, he got healthy, made it back onto the World Cup, became a factor in the minds of the U.S. Ski Team coaches, and now is the latest to add his name to a long list of Aspen Olympians.

"Certainly in his career there have been many times that I thought he was done. If and when it ends, it ends, but his perseverance is phenomenal and we celebrate every day that he's able to compete realizing every day could be the last," Mike Maple said. "I don't really have much fear and anxiety about him getting hurt or anything like that. My anxiety is whether or not he achieves his dreams."

acolbert@aspentimes.com