By Pam Lambert
December 24, 2001 12:00 PM

Daron Rahlves guns the engine of his dirt bike and hurtles toward the steep bank above the 70-ft.-wide Little Truckee River in the Sierras of eastern California. Heart racing, he can barely breathe. “You feel a little tingly,” he explains later, “and then…”Liftoff. The bike clears the opposite bank with 20 feet to spare. “Once you go, all those funny feelings just slip away, and you feel like you’re energized,” he says. “Then you pull it off and there’s Pfffff, this big release.”

Welcome to another day in the life of Daron Rahlves, adrenaline addict, reigning world champ in skiing’s super giant slalom and one of America’s strongest hopes to take a medal in alpine skiing at the Olympic Winter Games in February. If the muscular 28-year-old isn’t pushing his Harley over 120 mph, he’s riding a jet-ski through ocean swells. “You’ve got to have fun,” he says. “You’ve got to go out there and live it up.”

He certainly has been living large on the slopes. In March 2000 Rahlves took two World Cup downhills within 24 hours. He topped that this past January at the world Super G championship at St. Anton, Austria, becoming the first American male to win a world title since Steve Mahre in 1982. “I just felt a surge going through me for two or three days” after the race, he says. “I couldn’t have slowed down if I wanted to.”

Those close to him have learned to deal with his constant thirst for thrills. “Someone who doesn’t do sports may think he’s crazy,” says his girlfriend, Michelle Shetler, 26, a nationally ranked snowboarder before a knee blowout steered her into practicing physical therapy. (The couple met when Rahlves came to the clinic where she works in 1998 to rehab a dislocated hip.) “I think it’s just pure living, the adrenaline rush he feels just by pushing himself.”

Rahlves discovered that exhilaration early on. He was just 3 when his father, Dennis, a real estate developer in the San Francisco Bay area and holder of the world water-ski jump record in the ’60s, introduced him to waterskiing. His mother, Sally, a homemaker, recalls watching the older of her two kids clinging to his father’s shoulders as a powerboat pulled Dennis out of the water. “Daron loved it,” says Sally, 54, from Scottsdale, Ariz., where her husband’s idea of semiretirement has included competing in rodeos. “He wasn’t afraid or anything.”

Soon Rahlves was on snow skis. Two and a half years later he started entering junior ski races, as did his sister Shannon (now 26 and an aspiring Olympic triathlete). At 14, he left home to attend a ski academy, the Green Mountain Valley School, in Vermont. But “we missed him so much that we moved there,” Sally Rahlves says. “Dennis commuted from San Francisco to Burlington every 10 days for three years.”

Dennis Rahlves also ended up spending some $100,000 for Green Mountain, then an equal amount—or more—for the two years after graduation that his g son competed independently before making the U.S. Ski Team. He sees it as money well-invested. “He was the hardest working young man there,” says Dennis, 55, of Daron, a straight-A student at Green Mountain. “That showed me he wasn’t just going to get a little education and end up at Lake Tahoe as a lift operator.”

The 5’9″, 175-lb. Rahlves also showed the ski world he meant business, using fearlessness and technique to compensate for his relatively small stature compared to Bunyanesque racers like Herman “the Herminator” Maier. “Daron skis with a lot of risk,” says his friendly rival Hans Knauss of Austria, a silver medalist at the 1998 Winter Games in which Rahlves finished a disappointing 7th and 20th. “But his risk is in control.”

Ironically it was the racer’s recovery from an injury later that year, when he dislocated his right hip for a second time, that helped make the difference between competitor and champion. During Rahlves’s weeks of rehab at the Bear Bones physical-therapy clinic—not far from the redwood house in Truckee, Calif., that he and Shetler now share—the clinic’s director, Ladd Williams, worked on the skier’s outlook as well as his body. “Daron used to worry about what was against him,” says his girlfriend. “He started focusing on what he has, his capabilities and his talents.”

As the talent became evident and the wins piled up in 2000 and 2001, so did endorsement dollars. Sponsoring everything from bikes to sunglasses, Rahlves has an income of about $150,000 a year. But that’s not really the point, he maintains. “I’m not in skiing to make money,” says Rahlves. “I’m skiing because it’s one of the coolest drugs that I’ve ever found.”

Pam Lambert

Gerard Wright in Beaver Creek, Colo.