A.J. Kitt reflects on controversial 1995 World Cup downhill race
A.J. Kitt can’t come to Aspen without some controversy.
On Monday, as he watched the men’s and women’s World Cup downhill training at Aspen Mountain, he and his wife, Amy, battled with their 11-year-old triplets — Ava, Ayden and Aksel — on whether they wanted to meet and get an autograph from American superstar Lindsey Vonn.
There was some hesitancy from the children — mostly out of shyness, it seemed — but eventually Kitt was able to get his kids some one-on-one time with Vonn, long the idol of young American skiers.
Kitt, who now lives with his family in Hood River, Oregon, once raced alongside Vonn during a partnered event at the 2001 U.S. Nationals at Whiteface Mountain, New York, before Vonn had won the first of her now 77 career World Cup victories.
“It’s really special bringing my family back here. The last time I raced here in ’95 was way before I had kids, was way before I was married,” Kitt said about being back in Aspen. “All my kids are ski racers and they hear a lot about what I used to do, and it’s nice to bring them back here and get them a little bit more in touch directly.”
Kitt, 48, spent a decade competing for the U.S. Ski Team, and at his peak in the early ’90s was considered the country’s best downhill skier. His official lone victory is a 1991 downhill in Val d’Isere, France, although there are a couple others that mean just as much, even if the International Ski Federation (FIS) doesn’t recognize them.
More than anything, Kitt is known for having won the last men’s downhill race in Aspen. In that 1995 race, poor weather conditions allowed only half the racers to start, and Kitt later was stripped of his win by the FIS council. He was 20th out of the start gate that day in March, completing the course in 1 minute, 45.46 seconds.
“I’m well-known for it, and that’s something I’m really proud of. I don’t care if I got the World Cup points out of it or not. I got the trophy. I’m wearing it right now,” Kitt said, showing off the belt buckle he received for winning that race. “The top 30 guys kicked out of the start that day, and I ended up being the fastest one. That’s good enough for me.”
Depending on whom you ask, there was more to it than simply poor conditions. Kitt had a long-standing feud with Karl Frehsner, a former Swiss team coach who was among the FIS officials who ruled against Kitt in 1995. Kitt, who also won and was later stripped of a win in Aspen in 1993, had concerns about the course where a hole was developing in the warm weather on one of the final flats.
“We had a little battle going on that week about that exact gate and I was advising him that, hey, maybe that gate should be moved because the guys were coming in there really hot and we are doing a check turn where we jump off the road,” Kitt said. “I was just giving him a suggestion from a racer’s perspective, and then on race day, that was his chance to put it right to me. That’s his choice, not mine. My memories of being here very rarely go to that.”
Kitt won the prize money, the buckle, stood on the podium and still is recognized by Aspen Skiing Co. as the last man to win a World Cup downhill in Aspen, even if FIS officially took the win away. When the men take to the downhill course Wednesday, vying for the Roch Cup, it will be for the first time in 22 years.
Whether the 1995 race — which created somewhat of a rift between the U.S. Ski Team and FIS — led to the long absence of men’s downhill races in Aspen is debatable. Either way, Kitt is at peace with the situation and hopes to see Aspen again become a regular stop on the World Cup circuit.
He admits he likes the current early-season downhill races held at Beaver Creek, but also feels there should be a spot on the calendar for Aspen.
“I don’t know how we fit two speed events in America on the World Cup schedule, because I think Beaver Creek has got an amazing race course that ought to keep going, too,” Kitt said. “I love the Beaver Creek track as well, but I think Aspen has got so much history. I think it can’t be denied that Aspen has got to be part of this story.”
Kitt plans to stick around for the downhill and super-G races this week. He’s made it back to Aspen a few times since that 1995 race, including over the holidays when he took part in the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s Ajax Cup.