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Mind Over Mountain

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IT HAPPENS ALL OVER EUROPE-IN Wengen, Switzerland, say, or Kitzbühel, Austria—wherever the snow rugs the mountains and there is World Cup skiing. A European will spot a skier in the colors of the American Alpine team and will rush up and excitedly ask, “Kitt? Kitt?”

If you’re wondering, that’s AJ Kitt, 23, of Rochester, N.Y. In the States, Kitt is still a virtual unknown outside the skiing community. (At best, he’s confused with race-car driver A.J. Foyt, who is practically old enough to be his grandfather.) But in Europe, where ski champions are full-blown celebrities, Kitt is a hero. On Dec. 7 he took first place in the World Cup downhill race at Val d’Isère, France, becoming only the second American to win a World Cup downhill—the other was 1984 Olympic gold medalist Bill Johnson—since the circuit’s creation in 1967.

The current golden boy of U.S. skiing, Kitt is third in World Cup downhill rankings, behind only Switzerland’s Franz Heinzer and Austria’s Leonhard Stock. But he knows that his recent heroics—on Dec. 14 he placed fourth in a World Cup race in Italy even though he lost a pole midway through the course—will leave most of his countrymen as cold as a lift ride in January, unless he medals at next month’s Olympics in Albertville, France. “I try and pretend it’s just another race,” says Kitt. “But the Olympics are a big deal, especially for Americans, because it’s the only time they really watch the sport.”

What Americans will see when they tune in the downhill on Feb. 9 is a mad dash down Bellevarde mountain at an average speed of 60 m.p.h. Yet according to Kitt, there is method in the apparent madness. “The downhill,” he says, “is not a sport for meatheads that involves just going as fast as you can, because you’d get killed. You’ve got to be a disciplined tactician.”

An only child, Alva Ross Kitt Jr.—who immediately became AJ “because I simply couldn’t call him Alva,” says his mother, Nancy—grew up on skis. Nancy and Alva Ross Sr. were both on the ski patrol at a small area near Rochester when he was born. AJ says he began skiing at 2 “because it was easier to stand up in skis than walk in shoes. I entered my first race at 6 and got my first trophy.”

Many more would follow, as AJ started piling up victories in state and regional meets and attended specialized schools that gave as much time to skiing as to academics. Passing up college, he joined the U.S. ski team in 1987, going on the World Cup circuit a year later. “Everyone told me when I was a kid, ‘Slow down, slow down!’ ” he says with a laugh. “Now I can go as fast as I want and get paid for it.”

AJ is reluctant to talk numbers. But he won $15,000 for his first place at Val d’Isère. With his prize money, victory premiums and assorted endorsements—including Rolex watches, Raichle boots and Rossignol skis—it is estimated that his earnings are in the low six figures. Much of that has recently gone into a new three-bedroom condo in Boulder, Colo., where Kitt spent Christmas with his parents.

For half the year, however, Kitt is mostly away, competing on the pro circuit—and maintaining a schedule that is hardly conducive to a social life. “It’s almost impossible to meet women when we’re traveling,” he says. But his teammates, who themselves seem to have been lifted by AJ’s ascent to skiing prominence, appreciate him. “If he started getting out of hand and pulling some star stuff on us,” says U.S. downhill coach Bill Egan, “we would be the first to tell him he’s still a dork.”

This Olympic downhill is a conservative run that does not play to AJ’s strengths. “It’s slow with very tight turns,” he complains. But Kitt still hopes to medal. “I’ll do my best this year,” he says, “but whatever happens, I won’t forget there’s always a tomorrow. I’m at the top of the World Cup circuit, and I’ll be even better next year and the year after. Hey, I’m just a kid.”