The name Wiley Maple may sound familiar, but then again, you might be thinking about a new ice cream flavor or that wood finish you ordered the other day. Truth is, the 23-year-old alpine ski racer isn't a household name—not yet anyway. There's a good reason Maple has swooshed under the radar til now. The poor guy hasn't had a single healthy season since he joined the ski team right out of high school in 2008.
“I've broken a lot of stuff. Over the last five years, I haven't gone six months without a surgery. It's been rough,” says the Aspen, CO, native who was born into a family of skiers, including his parents (his dad is a two-time NCAA ski champion) and sister.
His first injury: a broken back. “You don't have to crash to do damage,” he says. “The force skiing puts on your body is enough. Over time, I blew some discs and had some insanely bad sciatica. It was hard to walk or sit without feeling a bulging disc pressing against my nerve. It felt like my leg was getting electrocuted every time. Surgeons eventually cut out the disc a year later.”
And that's the not the worst of it. He's had eight hand surgeries, too. “When you're going up to 80 miles an hour and you hit your hand against the gate, it breaks. The top part of the gate moves, but the bottom doesn't,” explains the 6'2", 215-pound speed demon. In between all the hand injuries, he had to go under the knife again to repair a 50 percent tear in his patella tendon. His right knee is still on the mend from that one—it sidelined him for most of the 2013 season.
“Such a big part of ski racing is staying not injured because you keep progressing every time you're on snow,” says Maple. Despite all of his health issues, Maple still loves to go all out. “My favorite races are when I save myself from almost crashing. That's when I go my fastest,” says the man who has clocked 95 miles per hour.
He was probably having one of those risky do-or-die moments at the Europa Cup in Val d'Isere, France last January. The comeback kid came into the competition in 34th place and miraculously moved up to 1st, taking home the top prize after having missed out most of the season. He wasn't injury-free that day either. He had broken his thumb earlier, so he had to tape his hand to his ski pole. Talk about dedication. Fully healed, this guy could be unstoppable. Lucky for him, he's got some time to recover.
“They say 28 is the peak age for the male downhill skier, but the best athletes in the last five years have been over 30,” says the Sochi-hopeful. “Hopefully, I can stick it out.” —Cristina Goyanes