BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — To make a little extra cash, downhill skier Wiley Maple painted houses over the summer and delivered food for a rib restaurant.
Anything to keep the injury-riddled 27-year-old charging on the slopes.
Maple doesn’t have an official spot on the U.S. ski team this season, meaning he pays his own way to World Cup races at a cost of about $30,000. It’s a price he’s willing to absorb for another chance on the circuit — this time healthy — and possibly a shot at the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
“I guess I’m stubborn,” said Maple , who finished 35th in a World Cup downhill training session Wednesday, 2.51 seconds behind leader Adrien Theaux of France. “I definitely do get discouraged.”
The Aspen, Colorado, native took the 2016-17 season off to heal from his fourth knee surgery. A necessary break.
Before, the pattern was always the same: Return from an injury at less than full strength, just to earn enough points to try and secure his spot with the team. All those ailments, coupled with a lack of results, led to a loss of funding. But by actually taking the time to heal, he just may have just found another gear.
“Best I’ve felt in six years,” he proclaimed.
And well before going through a rash of injuries:
— A dislocated elbow after slipping while running on a 5-foot rock wall in Beaver Creek.
— Tearing ligaments in his ankle in a car accident as a passenger while traveling down the mountain at Lake Louise.
— Herniating a disk tossing around a medicine ball.
— Chronic knee tendinitis.
“Getting hurt once is an amazing perspective to gain as an athlete, how much health and mental health is influenced by not being able to do anything you want to do,” said Maple, who’s been taking classes at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. “And once would’ve been enough.”
Maple was invited by new speed coach John “Johno” McBride to work out with the team over the summer. He was fast while training in Chile, and fast again in recent weeks at the Copper Mountain Speed Center.
He nearly closed the door on skiing, too, in a career where he’s won a national title, but never finished in the top 10 of a World Cup race. His best result is 17th place in Austria on Feb. 21, 2015.
“It’s such a hard struggle to get back to this level of competition,” he said. “I was having a bunch of fun in the summer, being a normal kid and being healthy for the first time in a long time. For so many years, I’ve been like massively injury depressed for six months and crawled my way back to up to health. At a certain point, it won’t be worth it, because I value my health and everyday life too much.”
To save some cash, Maple tunes his own skis on training days (the ski team helps him out at races). It’s actually benefited him on the hill.
“I’m seeing what’s going on and know what skis are fast,” Maple said. “Putting my own energy into it — hopefully it can be rewarding. It’s a nice meditation.”
His teammates think the sky’s the limit for him — once he realizes his boundaries.
“Wiley hammers too hard. Wiley overdoes it and doesn’t give himself enough rest and believes he can just go, go, go,” said Steven Nyman, who was 37th in training as he returns from a knee injury. “That’s what we’re trying to teach him, that you need to take a step back. You need to play hard, and you need to rest hard. You need to do everything at a high level. He’s starting to learn that.”
Still, it’s a hard lesson to grasp.
“Biggest struggle of my life,” Maple said. “I feel immense guilt when I’m not doing something — and boredom.”
To make financial ends meet, he’s organized fundraisers. He also squeezes in some side jobs, like this summer when he sandblasted and painted houses. The food delivery position was through a friend and lasted all of October, before the season started.
Good tips, too. Although, he was rarely recognized.
That could change with a strong season.
“I’m skiing well enough so I don’t think that’s out of cards,” Maple said. “I’m feeling good, best I’ve felt in years. It’s probably best I will feel until I get that nanotechnology going to fix my body.”