Kevin Bramble competes at the 2009 Winter X Games. (Photo: ESPN Images)
Kevin Bramble does not describe himself as a ski racer.
It sounds odd, considering that he won back-to-back gold medals in downhill at the 2002 and 2006 Paralympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City and Torino, respectively.
But being a downhiller, he said, is much more like the he’s always loved than ski racing.
“Ski racing, to me, is very structured and rigid and not something I enjoy very much,” said Bramble, from Cape May Court House, New Jersey. “Downhill isn’t so structured; it’s just bombing down the mountain. It was very similar to what I enjoyed about being out with the boys: going big, skiing fast, taking chances.”
After years away from the competitive side of the sport, Bramble, 48, once again has his sights set on lofty goals. He’s looking to get back into downhill racing and compete in the Paralympics, if not in Beijing in 2022 then in Milan-Cortina, Italy, in 2026.
“Really my focus is to get back my chops and position myself to win another downhill in Italy, 20 years after winning my last one,” he said. “That’s where my mentality is. If I can qualify for Beijing, great, but it’s just a stepping stone and just chiseling away at my ultimate goal, which is to get back to Italy. I want to do what it takes to be at the height of my ability again in four years and try to win.”
If it sounds a bit ambitious bordering on crazy, a quick look into Bramble’s background shows that his approach is right in line with how he’s always done things.
A snowboarding injury back in 1994 landed Bramble in a wheelchair, and two years later he started and competing in the LW12 classification. In 1998, he was named to the U.S. national team, but racing wasn’t his only interest. In fact, within the racing world he really only wanted to go fast, competing in downhill and super-G.
He had a lot more fun pushing the boundaries of what someone in a could do, becoming one of the first to venture into terrain parks and halfpipes and taking on deep powder and extreme terrain. In 2006, he was featured in the Warren Miller film “Off the Grid,” and he also competed in the X Games six times after lobbying to have included.
“(X Games) was definitely way more my speed, but maybe too much my speed,” said Bramble, who also designs and builds and other adaptive equipment through his company, . “I’d go too hard, too aggressive, and end up breaking something and crashing.”
His last time at the X Games was 2016, when he came out of retirement to have another go at it. Taking it a little easier than he did in the past because he was out of practice paid off and he won his first and only medal at the X Games, a .
Bramble tried a couple times to come off the couch and qualify for the Paralympics, too.
That wasn’t as successful. Although he was practically unbeatable in downhill when he was training and racing consistently, he tried to go to both Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014 but didn’t start racing again until the season leading up to each of the Games. On both occasions it just wasn’t enough time.
About two years ago, Bramble said, he started thinking about Beijing.
He planned to start racing downhill again this year and qualify for the world cup to give himself a better chance, but COVID-19 put a wrench in that. A lot of the downhills have been canceled, he said, and he tried recently to do what he needed to do through super-G, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to work out.
Bramble competed alongside a number of national team members and hopefuls in Winter Park in Colorado at the beginning of January but was disqualified in the first race and finished ninth out of 10 in the second.
“I don’t have the technique or the tactics or patience right now to run super-G,” he said. “I just don’t.”
So now the plan is to wait until next season and see what happens.
“When I left, I left at the height of my career and was basically undefeated (in downhill),” he said. “And there hasn’t been leaps and bounds in the technology (since); no one’s doing anything more than what I was doing 20 years ago. Really, I do think with a little seat time, if I can get back out there skiing more, get in some downhill practice, I think I could still be competitive.”
Asked if he knows of anyone who’s gone 20 years in between Paralympic appearances, Bramble chuckled.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s been fool enough to attempt it. … Whether I can win or not I don’t know, but I think I could still be competitive. And if it turns out in four years that it’s glaringly obvious I’m not competitive, I’m not so caught up in chasing this dream that I’m blinded to the reality of it all. If it turns out I am competitive, that’s great, and if not, hey, at least I had fun along the way.”