Living on hope
It happened during the X-Games in Aspen: a ruptured cruiciate ligament at the first jump of the finals. Bad, bad luck. But Kai Mahler, almost 18 and a free ski pro, gritted his teeth and went for two more jumps. The outcome: a silver meda. „I did realize that something was wrong with my knee“, says Mahler, „but it didn’t hurt that badly. It actually hurt more when I was standing around than when I was skiing.“ Later, when the MRI showed what was in store for Kai Mahler, it came as quite a shock: a long, long break from skiing. Luckily, it was the end of the winter season; at least, it wasn’t January.
More than half a year has since passed, half a year that has asked a considerable amount of patience from Kai. Half a year without snow, without skis on his feet, without jumps nor competitions. Still, Mahler says, he has learned a lot about his body, about building muscle, and about the way a knee functions. Or, more precisely: is supposed to function. The hardest part, according to Kai, was having to watch the others skiing. Having said that, he laughs. That’s typical of Kai Mahler: He doesn’t waste his time agonizing about setbacks and things he’s unable to change. If you call his cell, there’s music behind the ring tone, reggae. Don’t worry, be happy.
When mid-August came, Kai Mahler was pretty happy: He was back on his skis. With due caution, but without pain. „I just got to hope that the ligament will hold“, he says – his plan is a comeback at freestyle.ch in Zurich. Apart from that, Mahler is not pushing it at this stage: „Right now, I have to take it as it comes.“ He’s been there before.
A year with Red Bull
The date of his hoped-for comeback coincides with an anniversary: By mid-September, he’ll have been with the Red Bull team for exactely a year. He’d been dreaming about this for a long time, but a year ago, he would never have thought that the dream would come true so fast.
The story of him becoming a team member is a little fairy tale in itself. At the beginning, there was the breakdown of a car: Kai Mahler and Elias Ambühl had planned to meet in Mettmenstetten, the favorite training ground of the free skiers. Ambühl pretended that his car had broken down and asked Mahler to go and get the jumper cable from the trunk. „When I opened the trunk, there was a Red Bull helmet“, Kai recalls. At first, he didn’t realize what was going on. But when Ambühl told the amazed Mahler that the helmet was his, Kai was overjoyed. The date was September 12th, 2012, the day after Kai’s 17th birthday.
Kai Mahler was pretty much born with skis on his feet. There is a ski lift right behind his parents’ house in the town of Fischenthal in der Zurich Oberland. At the tender age of two, Kai began to skid down the slopes. As he grew older, he startet building little kickers next to the slopes. „That’s where we worked on our first backflips“, he recalls – „the first few times, we landed brutally on our backs and heads. Luckily, there was deep powder.“ He doesn’t really remember his very first real backflip: „When I first really did one and landed on my feet, it all went so fast that I didn’ realize what had just happened.“
Even more unfortunate injury
Kai decided to turn pro at age ten. „I always went on ski holidays with my mother. She’s been supporting me and my plans from the very beginning.“ In his first season, Kai ended up among the first few on a regular basis, being by far the youngest contestant. But it was already his second season that he had to finish early due to a meniscus injury. A year and a half later, Kai broke his collarbone before the season had even begun. „That was tough“, Kai says, „it would have been the first season for me to be part of the major contests and the big invitationals.“ He used the involuntary break for more preparation.
It paid off. From now on, there was no holding back for Kai Mahler. We has won the youth world championships, the youth olmpic games and two silver medals at the X-Games. His coach, Misra Noto, calls him a perfectionist. Kai knows all too well that the free ski scene has become more competitive: „Today, you have to work on your strenght, too, not only on your tricks. Core training is very important. In the old days, everybody thought we’d ski a little, drink a little, smoke a little dope. But today, the sport is very serious. That doesn’t mean that we don’t like to pary anymore, but we take very good care of our bodies. We know exactely what we’re allowed to do and what we’d better not do.“
In 2013, September was his lucky month again. Kai Mahler, just 18, had spent seven months trying to overcome his injury. By mid-August, he’d started skiing again and planned his comeback for freestyle.ch, an event in Zurich where he had won silver the year before. But insecurity remained a factor: “On thursday, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to compete at all”, Kai says, “I wasn’t able to do my tricks. But the training on friday went great, I started believing that I could do it.” On sunday, he did it and won another silver medal. He didn’t spend any time worring about not having won gold: “After seven months, it just feels super to be on the podium.” Don’t worry, be happy.