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Sunday, November 09, 2014
Breckenridge’s C.J. Mueller reflects on career and Hall of Fame induction
Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame
After an appearance in the 1992 Winter Olympics as a demonstration sport, speed skiing all but disappeared from the mainstream winter sports realm. Why hurtling straight down a hill at well over 100 mph — the current record is 156.8 mph — didn’t stick around when that year’s other demonstration sport, curling, did is up for debate. Athlete deaths certainly may have made for a compelling argument to drop it, or it could simply have been a popularity issue.
While the International Ski Federation (FIS) still sanctions speed skiing as a World Cup-level discipline, the limited number of events are primarily in Europe, with a few in Canada. The United States no longer has a team or domestic competition.
However, for more than 20 years during what was the sport’s peak — leading up to the 1992 Olympics — one Breckenridge resident was continually at the top of the list of the world’s fastest men on skis.
Today, he’s the guy who annually leads the Breckenridge Fourth of July parade dressed as George Washington, but in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s C.J. Mueller was breaking world records — eventually topping out at 137 mph on skis — and was continually among the top five in international and later World Cup races.
“It was just a great feeling going fast.” C.J. Mueller
ONLY U.S. SPEED SQUAD
His feats earned him a spot on the U.S. Ski Team’s only Olympic speed team squad, and more recently a place in the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.
Three times he broke world records. He also finished 10th in the 1992 Olympics, in Albertville, France, and yet the quiet 63-year-old describes himself as having never been much of a risk taker. He said skiing at those speeds was actually very safe, if you knew what you were doing.
His friends, who dubbed him “Crazy John” in the early ’70s, might offer a different take on his approach to the sport.
“Everyone had a nickname,” Mueller said of his early time in Breckenridge, when most of the town’s roads were still dirt. “The guys decided I was ‘Crazy John’ and it stuck.”
Mueller told the Daily he earned the name from the days when he and his friends would borrow shovels from the lift operators and build jumps on Peak 8, back before terrain on Peaks 6, 7, 9 or 10 existed.
When Mueller moved to Breckenridge in 1970 there were only four chairlifts on Peak 8.
“I really miss the camaraderie of skiing back then,” he said. “For the most part everybody knew each other, and if you didn’t know people, you met them.”
Looking back at the ’70s and ’80s, he said it was also common to find fresh lines as much as a week after a storm.
While appreciating the past, he welcomes skiing’s evolution over the years, with faster chairlifts and much more terrain to cover.
After starting his career in local downhill races, where he and his friends wore old baseball uniforms, Mueller got into speed skiing almost by chance in 1981 while visiting friends in Val d’Isere, France. His first time out he said he reached 100 mph and was hooked.
“I don’t know what it was about skiing and going fast,” he said, looking back. “I just really enjoyed being in a tuck and going fast.”
At his home outside of town, Mueller proudly pulled out one of the nearly 8-foot-long skis that he used to become the first skier to crack 130 mph. It still sits in his ski closet in the house’s entryway with a quiver of more modern models.
Trophies from any number of races are prominently displayed down in his study.
And just the thought of his racing days still brings a smile to his face, as he demonstrates a tuck position with his custom aerodynamic poles.
As to what goes through your mind at those speeds, the answer was simple. Absolutely nothing. You tense up and point downhill. He likened the feeling to being a stone skipping across a pond.
“Developing the mental capacity to do that was the big key,” he said. “It’s being so focused that you don’t have a conscious thought. That was the really satisfying part of it, the mental training.”
Muller said he was humbled by his recent induction into the Colorado Hall of Fame. He said he was most proud that both his 88-year-old father and 90-year-old mother could attend his ceremony.
“Speed skiing is just not very well known. I didn’t think it was a big enough deal that I’d ever be elected,” he said, adding that he was speechless when the news came.
But for him the sport was never about accolades anyway. It was just the joy of skiing, and most who participated were more concerned about personal bests than overall wins.
“It was just a great feeling going fast. That was the big draw for a lot of people. Most of the people weren’t there to win. There were guys just trying to go faster than they’ve ever been before.”
These days Mueller is just another man around town, in a town full of athletes — except that he’s got County Commissioner Dan Gibbs planning surprises for him at parties in his honor.
Mueller also said he still gets plenty of days on the mountain; they’re just shorter than they used to be and not quite as fast. Perhaps more than anything he’s looking forward to taking advantage of the lifetime Colorado ski pass that comes with entrance to the hall.
A trip to Telluride is one of the first items on his bucket list. Because, while he’s skied and competed across the globe, he’s never skied the San Miguel County resort that’s just a few hours away