As he cruises the downhill trails of the world, AJ Kitt sees a familiar object in his rear-view mirror. At first, it was only a tiny speck; then a human form emerged, and now Tommy Moe fills the entire frame.
Objects in the mirror, of course, are closer than they appear. But Kitt, America's first world-class male skier since Bill Johnson and the Mahre brothers retired, merely yells over his shoulder, "Catch me if you can."
He welcomes this added starter in the race to an Olympic gold medal next February at Lillehammer, Norway.
"For me, everyone that's racing is my competitor," Kitt said the other day. "So, there's nothing new. I don't race to be the best American; I race to be the best in the world.
"I think Tommy's second place (in the World Cup downhill at Whistler Mountain in Canada) means two really good things. One is that I have a training partner now that I'll be training with a lot, that I can compare myself with, who has been in the top three. The other thing is that now the chance of having two Americans on the (medal) podium is more realistic, and that's another big goal in my career.
"So, there's no rivalry between Tommy and me for best American as far as I'm concerned. We've been competitors forever, and we're still going to be competitors. In fact, it's better for me."
Kitt, who said he has fully recovered after tearing two ligaments in his left ankle last November, climbed onto the podium in mid-February when he took the downhill bronze medal in the biennial World Alpine Ski Championships at Morioka, Japan. Moe barely missed joining him, placing a surprising fifth.
Although Kitt dismissed the Morioka course as being "for gliders only--there was nothing technical about it," he said at the time: "Twenty years from now, I can hang this bronze around my neck and no one will know anything else than that."
What many do know, however, is that 13 months ago, Kitt went into the 1992 Olympic downhill at Val d'Isere, France, as a prime U.S. medal hope but finished ninth, a performance he still refuses to call a disappointment.
"Everything I said last year in regard to that holds true today," he said. "I was satisfied with my skiing, satisfied with my race, because I gave it a good effort. And going in, I didn't expect to get into the top 10 because the course was not a (true) downhill course, and it wasn't suited to my style of skiing. So, ninth was satisfactory for me."
What then, does he think about Lillehammer's Kvitfjell Olympic course, which has recently been given its shakedown tests?
Going into the two days of downhill racing, Kitt said: "It's a technical course, and I think that's the kind of course that's good for me. It brings out the best in me, and (because) it's difficult, it gives us all a challenge. That's what makes me ski fast."
Then, after placing 29th in the first race and being disqualified for missing a gate the next day, Kitt told the Associated Press: "I was out of whack all the way down. It wasn't my day, it wasn't my week, it wasn't my year."
Anyway, Kitt believes the Olympics are overrated--a feeling expressed by many ski racers who, it should be noted, have also been known to recant if they happen to win a medal.
"The press, and the American public in general," Kitt said, "seem to think that skiers race only once every four years, and that's not true. It's every week. We have the World Cup, and that's the most important thing for me. When the week comes around that there's an Olympic event, then that's the most important event at that time."
Kitt, 24, acknowledges that his chosen career is outside the mainstream of American professional sports, although he has earned enough money to buy a house in one of the better sections of his hometown, Rochester, N.Y., and to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle both on and off the ski-racing circuit.
"The United States isn't really a competitive skiing country," he said. "It's a skiing country in the sense that a lot of the population likes to ski recreationally. But very few, maybe 1% of the skiers in America, actually know what ski racing is.
"Probably 100% of the kids growing up in high school know what a baseball game or a football game is, and the same with car racing and all that, but ski racing is kind of left off to the side."
Still, according to one estimate, Kitt's bronze medal in Japan was worth an extra $80,000 from his sponsors and equipment suppliers, and his agent, Jon Franklin of International Marketing Group, told Ski Racing magazine: "In a very good year, AJ can make between $500,000 and $1 million."
Although Kitt will probably never have Ryne Sandberg as a neighbor, he should be able to join the same country club some day if he wants.
Tommy Moe, on the other hand, figuratively just opened his first checking account.
He earned $4,000 prize money with his second place at Whistler--in a race that Kitt failed to finish because of equipment problems--and probably tripled that figure with bonuses from suppliers.