On the fast track
Baylen Rifleman said the speed is a little hard to explain. "I describe it as being at an airport," he said. "Outside, not inside."
That's the sound Rifleman said he heard while hurdling down the side of Ajax Mountain in Aspen, Colo., at 65 miles per hour during the downhill competition at the J2 National Junior Olympic Skiing Championships earlier this month.
"You get going and you get comfortable with it," he said. "It doesn't seem like you're going that fast. It's kind of like NASCAR without the car."
Rifleman said the hardest part of the downhill was stopping.
"The finish is definitely the scariest part," he said. "I saw a lot of people go down or hit the fence trying to stop."
Rifleman, a sophomore at River Falls High School and a member of Team Afton USSA, was one of just nine boys and six girls from the entire Central and Rocky regions of the United States to qualify for the Junior Olympics, which were held in Aspen March 9-13.
"Making it was just a huge deal for me," he said. "Every day I've been thinking about that the whole year."
Rifleman mainly competes in the slalom and giant slalom during the season with Team Aspen, simply because the terrain in the Midwest doesn't lend itself to downhill or Super G racing. But at the Junior Olympics, all four races are featured. Of the nine boys from the Central/Rocky Region to compete, only three, including Rifleman, chose to take part in all four events.
Rifleman arrived in Aspen March 6 to train for the two additional speed events, and cut seven seconds off his time in the downhill between the first day of training and the race.
And he did it on a World Cup course.
"They told us that your kids have not only done one of the most difficult downhills in the country, but one of the most difficult in the world," Baylen's mother Anne said. "It's not for the faint of heart, but it was very affirming for him to know he can run a World Cup downhill."
Rifleman covered the course in a time of 1 minute, 15 seconds, good enough for 39th place out of 65 competitors and down from the 1:22 he posted on his first training day.
Rifleman's best finish was 12th in the slalom, and despite missing a gate in the Super G he was still the highest finisher from the entire Central/Rocky Region, one of three regions that make up the country.
Rifleman has been skiing since he was two and began racing in the Junior Devo program at Welch Village (Minn.) as a first-grader in the J4 program, where his father Rob was his coach. He has since moved to Afton Alps, where he trains from December through April for events all across the upper Midwest.
"I get myself to Afton every night and train from 6:30 to 8:30 Monday through Thursday and race on the weekends," he said.
Those races often require long trips and missed school, but Rifleman says he does what he has to to keep his grades up.
"This race I missed over a week," he said. "I try to get stuff from the teachers and do as much as I can on the road. I also have classmates that e-mail me notes and the teachers will e-mail me."
"He's very conscientious," Anne said. "If he wasn't, he wouldn't be doing this. The school has rules, but he's held up his end of the bargain."
In fact, Rifleman is hoping his success on the slopes can help him pursue a college education. He and his family took a side trip on their way home from Aspen to visit Denver University, which just won its 20th NCAA skiing championship.
"I met with the head alpine coach and we talked about scholarships," the 16 year-old said. "The nice thing is, they understand about the whole school thing. If I was a football player trying to get into a good school on a football scholarship, I wouldn't have to miss school. But skiing is different."
Rifleman described qualifying for the Junior Olympics as: "My state championship."
"I'm fortunate that my mom and dad, first of all, they pay for it, and they drive me everywhere," he said. "My dad takes off from work to drive me to races and I appreciate that. My extended family has always been very supportive. My teachers try and work with me, and my friends are always asking me how I did and wishing me luck.
"I want to see where it takes me," he said. "Who knows? I'll just keep working at it and getting better."