February 13, 2007

Mayer Seeks Degree After Olympic Success

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It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and many Cornell students are fast asleep recovering from the previous night. Senior Travis Mayer does not have time for that luxury. With two papers to write and daylight already fading snow-blanketed Ithaca, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences student from Colorado has work to do.

Not long ago, however, this senior spent such time and energy on a different type of work.

As an elite freestyle skier, Mayer is one of the four Cornellians who competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics hosted in Torino, Italy. The upstate New York native has been a staple on the men’s moguls circuit since he was named to the U.S. Ski Team at the age of 16.

Last year, he made the U.S. Olympic Team after standing on the podium for second place at the December 2005 World Cup in Oberstdorf, Germany.

“We [skiers] have a World Cup that’s every year, but the highlight of our sporting life is the Olympics, and it’s four years apart,” Mayer said. “So if you can imagine going to college and studying and putting your entire life on hold for four years all for one 24-second test, that’s what an Olympic cycle’s like.”

The applied economics and management major is no stranger to work, whether on the slopes or in the stacks. According to his first advisor, Prof. Kathryn Boor, Mayer is “similarly driven whether it’s his skiing or his academics.”

“His entire life trajectory is related to the approach he takes to everything, which is very intense, focused and convinced that he’s been able to use his intellectual abilities to improve his [athletic] performance.”

Boor has a picture of Mayer and her sons prominently displayed on a filing cabinet in her office. They have kept in touch ever since she was the first advisor to the freshman majoring in food science back in fall of 2000. Boor still remembers their first meeting, an unusual exchange to say the least.

“I’ll always remember meeting him. He was unusual,” she said. “He walked in and shook my hand … [and made] a very mature presentation of himself.”

Mayer explained to her that he was very interested in food science, although he would need to construct his academic program with a little more flexibility than the average student.

“He said, ‘I’m aiming to ski in the Olympics,’” Boor said. “I remember smiling and nodding my head and thinking, ‘delusional.’”

After taking a leave of absence from school in December to pursue that dream, Mayer was in sight of Salt Lake City and the 2002 Olympic team after a long-shot second-place finish at the Sprint U.S. Grand National in his hometown of Steamboat Springs, Colo. — a place he has trained since high school. He then clinched a spot on the squad by winning the U.S. Ski Team Gold Cup on New Year’s Eve.

The 19-year-old Mayer stunned onlookers everywhere when he beat out fellow American Jonny Moseley, as well as France’s Richard Gay, for the silver medal in Salt Lake City. His second shot at the Olympics was calmer than the prolonged adrenaline rush of five years ago.

“I was quite a bit older [for Torino],” he said. “[For Salt Lake City] I didn’t actually expect to go, so I was overwhelmed and really excited to be there. In Torino, I was a little bit better prepared.”

Though he arrived in Torino with an Olympic silver medal and four more years of experience under his belt, the results didn’t exactly meet his standards.

Mayer’s field, moguls, changed a lot between his two Olympic outings. Moguls skiers must maneuver around large bumps called moguls. The smoothness and form of these turns accounts for 50 percent of the final score. The other components are jumps (25 percent) and speed (25 percent).

Each competitor picks two jumps to execute during the run, perfected over four years spent training. But different tricks crossed into the mainstream in the interim for Mayer.

“[Moguls] is one of those judged sports you’re never quite sure exactly what the judges are looking for,” he said. Though he added quickly, “Not that the judging was bad. When you start preparing for something, you make certain assumptions about what’s going to be successful. Sometimes those assumptions may not hold … I picked two [jumps] that four years ago to start preparing them [I thought they] would be successful in 2006,” he said.

Mayer believes that the relative difficulty of his jumps and less-than-perfect execution caused his seventh-place finish in 2006. When he crossed the finish line of Torino’s twisting moguls course, however, the Olympics were far from over for him.

His girlfriend of three years, Australian aerialist Alisa Camplin, was set to compete in the women’s aerials freestyle competition two weeks later. Camplin, the defending champion from the 2002 Games, took home the bronze medal in Torino with Mayer cheering her on.

“It was almost like experiencing the Olympics twice, because I [also] got the experience as a spectator and a supporter, which is in some ways a lot more stressful.”

Mayer loved his experience in Torino. In addition to competing on the Olympic arena, he got to see a lot of hockey games and enjoy Italy’s sight-seeing appeal and “awesome winter sports culture.”

However, Mayer chose to end his skiing career with his second Olympics. He announced his retirement after Torino.

“When you do get into that life frame where you’re working four-year cycles and you’re planning on working through your life in four-year cycles, just the end result isn’t enough. You have to enjoy the process,” Mayer said. “I feel like preparing for this Olympics, I really did enjoy the process for four years, and I enjoyed the World Cup for four years and … though the outcome wasn’t exactly what I wanted to have, I still was happy to do it.”

Mayer had amazing experiences during his career as an elite skier, gripped in these cycles. Boor was a witness to Mayer’s success on the international stage. Filed away in her office are the postcards he sent to Ithaca from training or competitions in exotic locales, ranging from France and Germany to the Czech Republic and Chile.

Then again, there is another side to the seemingly glamorous life.

“It’s a year-round thing,” he said. “In the summer we’re either jumping into the water or we’re in South America training on snow. We’re in Europe all fall training on glaciers, then all winter you’re traveling for the World Cup. It’s a different event every week, so you live out of bags for about 10 months of the year, which is a really romantic thing and pretty fun for awhile, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a sustainable lifestyle.”

Though Mayer misses the traveling, competition and some of the people, another factor drove his planned retirement from competitive skiing.

“Every day, you go out … and hammer yourself in training … my body just had enough,” he said.

Mayer’s knees are permanently damaged from the years of harsh moguls courses. He has articular cartilage injuries in his left knee and a loose ACL, and he had a serious concussion after crashing in Japan in 2002.

Retirement was almost a foregone conclusion if Mayer wanted to maintain an active lifestyle.

“I just decided I’ve had a really good run with the skiing for the last five or six years,” he said. “The amount of additional toll that I would put on my body to continue isn’t worth trying to finish the unfinished business that I have, so I prefer to ensure I can play tennis and ride my bicycle and ski when I’m 50 and 60.”

He loves the outdoors, a common attitude for someone from Colorado, though school makes it hard to indulge this passion.

Mayer didn’t even bring his skis to campus, putting an end to the possibility of any weekend exhibitions at Greek Peak.

“I should’ve [brought them], but I don’t have that much time,” he said. “It seems like the time kind of disappears here.”

The only quality time Mayer has with his skis is over vacations. He skied for a full five weeks over Christmas break and will get one week on the slopes during spring break, but that’s about it.

“This last summer was the longest time I’ve had off of skis since I was 12 years old,” he said.

Academics are clearly Mayer’s focus now, though he is the first to admit that he didn’t follow a “normal track.” After the leave of absence from his second semester on to make the Olympic team and train for Salt Lake City, he came back for a semester in 2004 while recovering from an injury.

He has spent a chunk of his academic career, however, keeping up with schoolwork through correspondence courses, summer school and transfer work through UC Berkeley while he trained or competed.

He was “[just trying] to keep moving with it, more from the intellectual perspective than from the academic progress perspective,” according to Mayer.

He has found that each educational approach and location has its merits. Mayer names the availability of nature as the biggest difference between living out west and in upstate New York. While Colorado is built around people’s obsession with the great outdoors, a city like Ithaca, with its “incredible resources” and “diversity of interests,” has more remote outlets for this desire.

Mayer thinks about reviving his career at times, being able to travel the world once again, but the temptation never lasts.

“I thought about [returning to competition] in November when the World Cup started up”, he said. “I was reading about the results. It makes you a little bit nostalgic I guess, but that went away pretty quickly.”

Mayer has other things on his mind. Combine the current craze for sustainability on campus with Mayer’s deep-seeded love of the outdoors, and perhaps a path concerning those two is destined for the applied economics and management major.

“[My family’s business, Mayer Brothers, a Buffalo-area cider mill, juice and water bottling company founded in 1852, is] getting into investing in some renewable energy stuff, wind farms and stuff like that, so maybe I’ll try and get involved with that, either through them or somehow in that industry,” Mayer said.

He has approximately one semester left to go, with two more classes left to take this summer to complete his degree. Mayer plans to take the LSAT this summer and then apply to law school — where he hopes to concentrate on transactional law and go into business.

But first, he will take a year off and work in the marketing department at Steamboat Ski Resort in his Colorado hometown. As a good introduction to the industry he hopes to enter, Mayer will return to the place where his path to Olympic success began.

And though he doesn’t rule Cornell out, Mayer’s dream law school is Stanford.

“It’s a nice balance for me,” he said. “It’s obviously an awesome law school, and it’s close to the ocean and close to the mountains.”

That’s the part of skiing that the two-time Olympian wants to keep up for the rest of his life. After years of working towards his Olympic aims, it was time to get going on new goals by drawing on the same determination and love of the outdoors that he honed on the moguls course.