His Life Is Going Downhill Fast, and C.J. Mueller Likes It That Way
03/20/1989 at 01:00 AM EST
C.J. Mueller straps on his streamlined ski helmet, drops into a tuck and plunges down a slope that falls away like the side of a building. In three seconds he's doing 60 mph. After seven, he's up to 100. By the time he completes the measured portion of the 1,000-meter run down a vertiginous hill that most people wouldn't try with a parachute, he's over 130, his skis roaring like jets and kicking up a towering rooster tail in his wake.
This isn't the kind of suicidal activity that wins Olympic gold medals—at least not yet. It's speed skiing, the alpine equivalent of a lead-footed drag race. "You just tuck your knees into your armpits and go," says Mueller, who had set world records three times in the past six years and holds the current U.S. mark of 136 mph. Unlike downhill racers, who rarely top 80 mph, speed skiers plummet straight down inclines as steep as 44 degrees on courses that have been groomed and smoothed by bulldozerlike devices called winch cats. Should a skier have the misfortune to lift out of his tuck even slightly, the wind slams into his chest like a cannon. In 1983 former world champ Franz Weber suffered severe burns on an arm and leg in a fall when the speed of his slide melted parts of his rubberized suit.
No one gets into this sport without being a little—well, Mueller doesn't mind saying it. "C.J. stands for Crazy John," he says with a grin. In his adopted hometown of Breckenridge, Colo., Mueller, a college dropout whose given name is John Frederick, is revered as the founder of the Ridge Street Rowdies, an unmenacing (and generally cycleless) motorcycle gang dedicated to all-night faux-Grease boogying. He is also the leaping lead guitarist of an air-guitar band that once opened in Breckenridge for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. On local cable TV last year Mueller appeared as a "cereal killer." ruthlessly knifing a box of Wheaties. "C.J. is completely lacking in self-consciousness, and sometimes in all consciousness," says Jim Felton, a spokesman for the Brecken ridge Ski Corp. "He's a 37-year-old kid."
But the kid won't be kidding later this month, when he'll journey to Norway to chase the current world record of 139 mph held by Michaël Prufer of France. Nor will he be kidding at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, where speed skiing, a sport started in the U.S. in 1870, will be a demonstration sport. Paradoxically, Mueller is not sure he approves. "The problem with being part of the Olympics," he says, "is that it will turn speed skiing into a business. You make it so serious, you lose the ambience."
And Mueller is an ambience buff. The son of a Denver aerospace engineer, he tried college at the Colorado School of Mines, but the only thing he dug was the ski team. "I liked being out in the mountains," he says. More than that, he was determined not to do anything he didn't like. When he was 17, he was deeply affected by the death of a friend. "I realized it could all end at any time," he says, "and I made up my mind to live life on my own terms."
Mueller was never more than a fair downhill racer, and in 1981 a knee injury cut down on his turning ability. It was then he discovered the straight-on thrill of speed skiing. While vacationing in the French Alps, Mueller clocked a speed of 103 mph on his first run. "I thought,' Yeah, this is what I'm gonna do,' " he says.
To support himself, Mueller does construction work, holds ski clinics and works as a consultant for a ski-wax manufacturer. Admirers say he is a genius at "ski tuning," which includes waxing and edge-sharpening, and which contributes to his speed-skiing prowess. He lives in an old three-bedroom house with two roommates, and the room where he keeps his 18 pairs of skis is as splattered with wax as Madame Tussaud's workroom. "I don't want to say this place is a dump..." he says. Then again, he doesn't need to. "I don't have a family, I don't drive a BMW," he says with a shrug. "But I feel I'm successful." As any man should who can accelerate quicker than a Ferrari by simply sticking his knees in his armpits.
—Jack Friedman, Jack Kelley in Vail