It was Doug Lewis' next-to-last visit home before the start of the European racing season. Wisps of wood smoke drifted from the chimney of the Lewis family's early-19th-century farmhouse in Salisbury, Vt. In the steaming kitchen Susan Lewis pondered the many talents of her ambitious 22-year-old son, America's top-rated downhill racer. "People look at athletes as dumb," said Mrs. Lewis, who teaches fourth grade. "So people are surprised to learn that Doug can play the cello." From across the table, Doug beamed. "He's a competent musician," his mother added with no-nonsense candor. "Not a great one." Her fiercely competitive son bridled. "Aw, Mom," he complained, "I can play all right."

Okay, so maybe he won't make you forget Pablo Casals. But on skis the kid is already a virtuoso. As racers go, he's got all the right stuff: thighs the size of tree trunks, catlike reflexes, a gyroscopic sense of balance—everything it takes to make him America's brightest hope for a medal in the downhill at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. Yet he hasn't exactly taken the European World Cup circuit by the ears. His best finish has been a fifth in Kitzbühel, Austria. Still, the season is young. And there's one big consolation. "Johnson," says Lewis, "is doing terribly."

That's Bill Johnson, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist from California, who is also Lewis' No. 1 U.S. rival and sometime antagonist. "Our personalities," says Lewis, "are very different.' When, during the last Olympics, 1976 gold medalist Franz Klammer dubbed Johnson an immature "nose picker," he was referring less to Johnson's nose than to his gold-medal mouth. The cello-playing Vermonter with a passion for Bach tends to be a bit more reserved.

Yet once he steps into those bindings, Lewis attacks the slopes. "Other coaches tell us we're lucky to have someone who's not afraid," says Theo Nadig, men's downhill coach of the U.S. Ski Team. "He's one of the athletes on the World Cup circuit who takes the most risks." And the risks are considerable, as Lewis has learned. In 1981, while hurtling down aslope at Aspen, he caught the edge of his ski and hit the snow upside down. He crushed four vertebrae and spent four months in a brace. "I was bummed," he says with a grin. "The accident didn't even make it to network TV."

Not all skiers on the circuit exhibit Lewis' sangfroid. When a racer is tearing along at 60-plus mph, a major bump can sling him 50 yards through the air. "You just see a rim of snow," says Doug, "and nothing but mountain peaks in the background. Some people freak out and freeze in midflight." While Lewis claims to enjoy going airborne, there is a practical imperative to his hang-it-out style. Now in his fourth season of international competition, he has learned that "taking risks is what separates the guys in the first seed from guys in the 30s and 40s. Those guys hold back a little." '

Away from the slopes Lewis can be equally venturesome. For one thing he's not afraid to crack a book. A tireless self-improver, he spent last season reading War and Peace and is currently immersed in The Iliad. Three summers ago he studied German to make himself less of a conversational dud on the circuit; last summer he took a course in English literature at the University of Vermont. "I talk gooder now," he says with a smile.

Then there's the music. Susan Lewis insisted that each of her four children learn to play an instrument. Doug studied the cello for 12 years, earning a spot on the All New England Orchestra in high school. Though obviously his cachet as a skier is" his ticket of admission, he may get a chance to solo at the White House next spring, with the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in the audience. Maybe they'll even play a duet. But if Lewis is suffering from performance anxiety, it's not obvious. "I'm a classic at pulling things out," he says. First, he would like to pull out at least one World Cup race this season. "Then," he declares, "I want to win the Olympics." So eat your heart out, Carnegie Hall, this man has appointments to keep.

  • Contributors:
  • Cable Neuhaus.