Most professional athletes announce their retirement tearfully, to 20 or 30 microphones in a room full of people. Jake Fiala chose the cab of his pickup truck at the south end of Dillon Reservoir.The 29-year-old Frisco resident, who has represented Summit County for nearly a decade on the international ski front, sat in the driver's seat on Thursday afternoon and explained that he's done. Done with the World Cup. Done with the U.S. Ski Team.Done with the ski racer's life.Fiala didn't cry. Didn't come close, as a matter of fact. He shifted back and forth between happy and sad, displaying the same soft-spoken demeanor that personified him over a career in which he became one of the most successful speed event (super-G and downhill) racers in U.S. history.
"I'm still coming to terms with it," said Fiala, who decided in the "last few days" to call it a career. "It's been hard. It's been my whole life," he added. "I started racing at 10, skiing when I was 3. All I did was go to school and ski on weekends. That's all I ever looked forward to. I made a good run at it. I had a great career."Fiala spent the past two seasons on the U.S. Ski Team's "A" Team, but fell prey to an ankle injury this year and competed in only nine World Cup races. He will fail to finish in the top 30 of the season standings. The World Cup season ends March 13 - and any racer 28 or older must finish in the top 30 of at least one discipline to remain on America's A Team and receive full funding.Fiala did that last year, finishing a career-best 27th in the super-G standings.
Fiala, who turns 30 in May, leads the NorAm Tour standings and would requalify for the national team if he wins the tour.But he would have to fund his own training and travel from there if he wanted to earn a spot in World Cup races next year. He said Thursday that's not a realistic option, especially coming off this season.His best finish was 34th in a Jan. 15 downhill at Wengen, Switzerland. He took 40th in his final World Cup race, a super-G at Kitzbuehel, Austria, on Jan. 24. He needed to make the U.S. roster for the World Championships to maintain his spot on the team, and when he didn't, the American coaches sent him home."I've been skiing so long and getting better for so long, and this is the first year I haven't gotten better," he said. "It hasn't been fun at all."
He'll announce his retirement officially at the U.S. Alpine Championships, which take place at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., the last week of March. Until then, he'll do what he hasn't since he was little: "play." Life after ski racing begins, ironically, with a ski race. Fiala has received a wild card to compete in next week's Winter Gravity Games skiercross at Copper Mountain. It will be his first skiercross race. He's also freeskiing to his heart's desire, snowkiting on Dillon Reservoir (he's co-owner of Colorado KiteForce in Frisco) and - gulp - even snowboarding from time to time. (His girlfriend's a snowboarder, and he rides with her.)Thursday, for example, he spent the morning at Copper, hitting jumps in the park and running the pipe. Then he took out his kite for the sun-baked afternoon, before wrapping up the day with some night runs at Keystone."I've just been having fun, back to when I was 10," Fiala said. "Just jumping and freeskiing, not thinking about technique. You can imagine if you've been trying to get better for 20 years that you really think about the technical aspect of skiing, and you forget about the fun of skiing. It's been fun just to get back on the boards and get that passion back."
Fiala graduated from Summit High School in 1993 and made the U.S. Ski Team four years later after skiing with Team Breckenridge for much of his teenage years. At 21, he was one of the oldest first-time national team qualifiers in decades.For four years he fought to earn a spot on the World Cup circuit, one which he has held for five years. His career-best Cup finish came on Colorado snow; he skied to 13th in a Birds of Prey super-G at Beaver Creek in 2003. He also competed in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and was the top American finisher in the 2003 World Championships downhill at St. Moritz, Switzerland, where he took 12th. Fiala posted 18 point-scoring (top-30) results in his World Cup career.Thursday, he said he's still up in the air as to how he's going to enter "real life, some sort of reality." He said he'll race in the local FIS races for the rest of the season to help the up-and-comers with penalty points, and that he plans on making Frisco his long-term home.
"I'll have a hard time doing a 9-to-5 job," he said, adding that he might pursue a construction career and perhaps take on some ski coaching duties, as long as travel's not involved. He has worked as a lumberjack, cutting down trees for the past few summers, and he plans to continue that this summer.With the toughest part of bidding adieu to international racing - telling his dad - behind him, Fiala is at peace with his "inevitable" decision."I really don't know what I'm going to do next," he said. "That's exciting."Devon O'Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.