The Secret Lives of Skiers

by Joel Smith & r & You're standing in the garden section of the Spokane Valley Home Depot, eyeing the fine print on the back of a bottle of Spectracide Mole Repellent, trying to decide if this would be more or less morally repugnant than using a trap or a Giant Destroyer gas canister. You hate those damn moles with a passion you didn't know you had.

One of the salesmen, a big guy, about 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, wearing the customary orange apron, comes over to help you weigh the pros and cons. He's talking about chemical stability and maximum application, and you're listening closely, relishing your invaders' imminent extinction. But the whole time he's talking, you have no idea that three days ago, he was a gray-green blur shooting 80 miles per hour down a mountain in Austria somewhere. You have no idea you're talking to an Olympic athlete.

Tom Rothrock may work in the home and garden center at the Home Depot in the Valley. But he's also the third-best alpine skier in the nation, and one of the top 30 in the world. Don't worry, this phenomenon is common at Home Depot, which, over the past 13 years, has employed some 500 athletes through the U.S. Olympic Committee's Olympic Job Opportunities Program. The program offers athletes flexible work schedules with full-time compensation and a little pocket cash while they ride their dream pony to Gloryland.

Rothrock grew up in Cashmere, Wash., a few miles outside of Wenatchee. An athletic kid, he started skiing with his father and brother at nearby Mission Ridge around the age of 5. By 7, he'd entered his first competition, the Mighty Might at Mission Ridge, placing third in the event.

About 10 years later, he found inspiration in Tommy Moe, the American alpine skier who, in 1994, brought home two gold medals from the Olympics in Lillehammer. That same year, as a sophomore in high school, he won his first competition, becoming a Junior Olympic champion.

He was hooked. "I was pretty good at [basketball and football and soccer]," Rothrock says from his current home in Liberty Lake, where he lives with his wife, Angie. "But I really liked skiing better. I think I was a little better overall in skiing. It's good to be outside and going fast down a hill."

By the end of high school, Rothrock's skiing success had turned so many heads that he was offered a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah. He turned it down. "If you go to college, you're not going to make the Olympics. It's a longer shot, anyway," he says, explaining, "You're not traveling around the world, you're not competing against the best people. You're staying local and racing against less stiff competition."

Rothrock opted for world travel and the stiffer competition, joining the U.S. Ski Team in 1997, at the age of 19. He hasn't looked back since. At 21, he got his start on the World Cup circuit, running 20 to 30 races a year in the United States, Austria, Germany, Italy, France and elsewhere. During the 2002 season, he came in 12th in the World Championships and 15th at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Last season, he finished 9th in the Schladming, Kitzbuehl and Park City World Cup competitions. He finished 6th at the Sestriere World Cup.

Asked what it's like to be jet-setting about Europe, all expenses paid, while his old high school classmates (including his older brother, who skied with him as a child and now works for an apple company in Wenatchee) settled into regular careers, he explains, "I worked hard for it."

There's no doubt about that. Rothrock trains more than 200 days a year, for about three hours a day. That figure (which doesn't include actual races) may not sound like much to many working stiffs. "It's pretty intense," Rothrock says. "After three hours, you're pretty tired." Racing 80 miles per hour down a ski slope, pulling 3.5 Gs on the corners, the strain and the lactic acid build-up can exhaust an athlete within just 90 seconds.

Not even summer provides a respite for Rothrock and the ski team. Because summer in the states is winter in New Zealand -- meaning time for more training.

But that's what it takes, says Rothrock, adding, "Sometimes you just gotta pay your dues." In a few days, he's off to Colorado for more training. And he's got his eyes set on February's Olympics in Torino, where he'll race on a course he's done very well on before.

Sitting in the top 30 bracket among the world's skiers for a couple years now, he believes nothing but practice will help him break into the top five, where the real respect and money lie. (Rothrock isn't doing too badly himself; top 30 skiers can get annual sponsorship retainers of around $100,000.)

"Sometimes you just have to grind out the bad years and stay positive," he says, citing the case of a Canadian skier who made a similar hard-work rankings-jump in recent years. "You'll catch a break."

In the meantime, he probably wouldn't mind catching a nap. Though he thinks Schweitzer holds up pretty well to any skiing in Austria, he confesses, "When I'm home, I don't want to ski." He'd rather golf or dirt-bike or enjoy his year-old marriage. Or else explain why gas cartridges might be the better bet for getting rid of those pesky moles.

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