Just how good is Andy Mapple? Let's forget for the moment that we know he's the best slalom skier who has ever lived. That he's been leading the slalom brigade since 1981, and very few have beaten him in those 17 years hence. Let's just put aside that knowledge for now.
Consider instead the word consistency: holder of the world record for 12 years (1985-97); nine-time U.S. Masters champion; eight-time Pro Tour champion; nine-time Moomba Masters champion. The list goes on. However, even all these credits don't have their full impact until you realize that every single year since 1985 Mapple has entered the new season as the No. 1-ranked skier in the world. Amazing. Other sports greats such as Wayne Gretzky, Martina Navratilova and Barry Sanders don't have records like that. So the question is: Why is Andy Mapple so good?
Is it training? Well, yes. Take into account Jodi Fisher – a new Mapple nemesis who also happens to be a Mapple friend. “With Andy everything is 110 percent all the time. I've never met anyone so committed and focused with such a singular determination. Training with him has made me a better skier. But I won't ever be Andy. I don't think anyone can match that determination.”
So he's focused. So what? It still doesn't explain away all 102 professional titles. But being a dominant player in the early 1980s, when fewer men played and even fewer ran deep 38-off, isn't the same as dominating today when there's a proliferation of strong, capable skiers. The skill level he has transcended the last decade is much broader. Even Mapple concedes, “It used to be that if you fell early on you wouldn't win, but you could still place fifth or sixth. Nowadays if you fall early you'll end up 15th or 20th.”
So is that what pushes him?
“No,” he says settling up against his workbench, arms crossed, blue eyes pensive. “I don't think about what anyone else is doing. I don't read the magazines or watch the shows. I don't even really train with anyone. There are only a few people that I trust enough to ski with. Jodi's one of them. Sammy Duvall's another. And, of course, [my wife] Deena when she was skiing. It's just that I don't like the gossip and all the talk in the sport. I don't mark myself against anyone else in practice or in tournaments, so there's no real point in training with other people.”
So, in a sport as social as water skiing, the world's best is a loner. He shows up every weekend, kicks your slalom butt and disappears. Could it be, then, that his goals push him past everyone else?
“I don't set goals like winning tournaments or titles,” he says. “I like to win, but it's not my motivation. My motivation is bettering myself. Not at someone else's expense, but continually challenging my own abilities every day.”
At this point, Mapple pauses, uneasy with this interrogation, maybe even a little self-conscious. But if Andy's one thing, it's considerate. He goes on to add, with a genuine smile, “I just looooove skiing. That's my motivation.”
Fair enough. So maybe his skill is a function of natural-born athleticism. Come to find out, though, that he doesn't have rows and rows of high school trophies sitting on the shelf at home. Mapple laughs at the thought. “I'm not coordinated at all. In fact, I'm really just the opposite. I played soccer early on, but skiing was really the first athletic thing I did, the first athletic thing I was comfortable with. And even that took work. I'm not a natural athlete.”
Well, there goes the Michael Jordan analogy. Perhaps it's purely physical. Right body, right sport. At 6'2″ and 178 pounds, the man's built for slalom skiing. He has virtually zero-percent body fat, and his reach alone can propel him around six buoys at 39-off. That makes things a little easier. But he is 35 years old, an age in the sports world where things begin to go downhill. Is he cross-training to keep in shape?
Again, no. Mapple's run the gamut of professional training practices in his career. He's been the hard-core five-sets-a-day skier. He's run the cross-training route by spending several seasons biking and running and weight lifting to complement his skiing. He's come to realize that none of it really works for him. Rather, these days he'd more likely fall into the “everything in moderation” psyche. On the day I showed up, in fact, he only skied once.
“I try and ski every day, but usually it's only one, maybe two sets. I don't really need more than that. I know what I've got to do, so I just do it. Either it feels good or is doesn't.”
But he has to do something to stay in such good shape. You can't be the world's best with “Either it feels good or it doesn't,” can you?
He pauses, searching for an answer. “I like to run sometimes. Or bike. But it's not something I do every day. Too much training, skiing or otherwise, wears you out. I do some weight lifting in the off-season to keep my strength up, but I haven't really found anything in the gym that works me out the same way slalom skiing does. I can be fit and still get sore from a really hard set. Skiing keeps me in shape more than anything, but when I do lift I try to concentrate on muscles that I wouldn't use in slalom skiing. I think it helps to keep everything strong.”
While that scenario may sound preposterous to any aspiring Mapple wanna-be, it's a system that obviously works. Why?
Mapple shrugs. “Experience maybe. There's no sense in beating myself up on a day like today where the wind changed twice in six passes. Training in that doesn't do any good. I'm not going to learn anything.
“There is one thing I remember about training with Paul [Seaton], my first coach. Three days before some tournament, I was at the lake getting ready to take a set and Paul said to me, 'This is your last set. However you ski right now, whether you miss the gates or fall or run 38 off, this is your last set before the tournament.' And he was right. I didn't ski again until the weekend. I still think about that. It taught me that you don't have to ski every day. Time off is a good thing.”
OK, maybe it's the equipment. Maybe Andy Mapple is the world's best skier because he has the world's best skis. Some secret formula no one's telling us about. The man has 400 skis stacked in his workshop, 400 skis that he's ridden and tinkered with, from bevels to rails to shape to fins to whatever. This tells you something about Mapple's value to O'Brien, that it goes beyond his world titles. He's a walking R&D tour de force. And he's a perfectionist to boot.
“I've been very lucky to have O'Brien's support the past 16 years. Every time I've needed a new ski or had an idea, they've always listened. What we've created this year, the Siege and the Mapple Siege, are really great skis, but …” His sentence trickles off.
He's still not satisfied?
“Skis can always be improved,” he says walking over to yet another prototype leaning against the wall. “I'm always playing around with something. Some of these skis haven't worked, some have. I'm still learning and searching for the perfect ski. Which is half the fun.” Mapple actually grins at the thought.
“My work for O'Brien has gone beyond just being on the water, which I like. I like the R&D side of things. It's very challenging.”
But some people would argue that you can't perform well on a ski that you don't trust, that you haven't gotten comfortable on.
“Well, maybe. But I think skis are like race car
s. The drivers don't get out there and rely on the car to do its thing because it's done it before or it's comfortable or in tune. They constantly test out new ideas to see how it responds. They're constantly learning how to use the car, how to make it work better. You can't do that without trying new things. That's how skis are for me.”
OK, so Mapple is extremely determined and a hard worker, but not really athletic or invested in a secret cross-training regimen, and he doesn't have special equipment that you and I can't get our hands on. So, what is it? What makes Andy Mapple so good?
“I've just been blessed. I love skiing. I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing, but today, now, it's a different percentage level. I'm just as challenged to be working on developing new skis as I am to be skiing in tournaments.”
This seemingly laid-back attitude is fairly new for Mapple, especially for a guy who admits he's anything but nonchalant. “I'm very stubborn, very hard-headed. I listen to people and go to others for advice, but I really don't trust anyone else to work things out except for me.” So he's your classic type-A personality perfectionist, the man who just won't quit unless it's perfect, and not according to someone else's standards, but according to his own. Which explains a lot about his determination and success.
But Mapple goes on to say that there is one thing he thanks for his continued success – God.
Andy and Deena were baptized in 1994 at central Florida's First Baptist Church of Windermere. The years since have been a period of reaffirmation. “I've always believed in God but never really participated 100 percent. Deena always had a much stronger belief than I did. But after Michael was born, and my skiing was still strong and everything seemed to fall into place, I felt like I had something I really needed to thank God for. I'm very blessed to have the life that I have, to do what I love and to have this family, and the Lord has provided that. It's given me a new perspective on my life … a peace that I didn't have before.”
Hmmmm. Turns out faith in God is the trump card. It's laid out on the table, and there's nothing you or I can say to refute it. Mapple's track record is undeniable. Cold, hard, stone fact. He's the best slalom skier ever. He works hard, trains hard, is determined and knows his equipment inside out. And he still takes the time to thank God for his success, his family, his life. It's just enough to make you go to church this Sunday, isn't it?