Travis Ganong
Credit: Mitchell Haaseth / NBC Olympics/ USOC

Unless you're a ski race junkie, you probably hadn't heard of Travis Ganong until he barreled down Sochi's slushy course in 2:06.64, beating Bode Miller and looking as surprised about it as everyone else. Ultimately, the Squaw Valley native finished fifth, the best of any American and far better than anyone expected from a not-quite-slim, 25-year-old competitor known for his extracurricular exploits in the California backcountry.

A bit of surprising success must have knocked something loose. Ganong has exploded since the Olympics, taking his first podium and several more top five finishes. His late-season surge resulted in him taking ninth overall in this season's FIS downhill rankings – just behind Bode. Suddenly the "nice" guy is looking like the next big contender.

Men's Journal spoke to Ganong about his recent success and how he got so fast so quickly. 

What clicked on that run in Sochi?
Going in, I really didn’t understand what the Olympics were all about. I'd seen them on TV, but once I got to Sochi it hit me that this is the spotlight, the worldwide spotlight. Once every four years the world watches ski racing. So I don't know why I felt like this – it doesn't make any sense – but I felt no pressure. I was just there having fun, being present. Somehow that run felt like any other day skiing, definitely not the biggest race of my life. I relaxed and let my skiing take over, and my mind went to a good place. I knew I was skiing fast, but I got fifth place, which was my best result at that point.

How did that run change how you ski?
I was able to lay it down when it counted: at the Olympics. Somehow I was able to wrap my head around what I was doing and figure out how to relax, how to not over-amp myself. Getting close to a medal was shocking. That was a huge confidence boost and step forward for me, because I was able to ski like I want to ski in a big event. Since that day I've taken that same mentality through the rest of my season. I'm relaxed and enjoying myself, having fun, not stressing out – just letting it all go. 

The results have come. In the last seven or eight races I've finished in the top nine in every single race.

How are you now able to find that mental sweet spot before each race?
This is my fourth full season on the World Cup tour and every single year I've gained experience and confidence. It takes a lot of experience to be fast on these downhill courses. There are so many variables you have to learn in order to go 80 miles an hour over this terrain – you have to have done the runs a few times before you can relax and let your skis take over. That's the main thing right there. I'm at a point now where I've done all the work, and I can not stress about little things, relax, have fun, and enjoy myself.

So the experience was there, you just needed something to bring it out?
It’s like this: when I'm free-skiing at home in Squaw Valley I've skied those run millions of times so I can blindly jump off five cliffs in a row, do the trees, and bomb down the chutes. I can ski that place better than anyone can ski it simply because it's all become second nature to me. But when I have friends who come to Squaw to ski with me, I take off and they follow me and they get freaked out because I'm going off things that are blind and they have no idea what’s down below. It's similar on these downhill runs. I've skied them all a couple times, so I know where I'm going, I'm confident with my lines, my skis, my boots, everything, and I can block the variables out and focus on the skiing and go as fast as possible.

The team has a new strength coach this year. How has that helped?
Yeah, this guy from Austria Tony Beretzki. He was a trainer for the Austrians back in their heyday, the Hermann Maier era. He totally changed our program and we all worked harder than we ever worked before. I've noticed the benefits of our summer training this winter. I could ski more runs and more days in a row without getting tired. I was able to build strength throughout the season and build my fitness. In the past I'd enter the season strong and I'd just try to maintain it, but I'd end up weaker at the end of the season.

What did that training look like?
We started off the summer with really, really low intensity cardio for maybe two to four hours a day, five days a week. We spent an amazing amount of time on the road bike going easy at a 120 beat heart rate or lower. It was boring as hell and the whole time the team was like, 'Wow, this is crazy. What are we doing?' But it built us a solid platform. 

After a month of that, we did these really intense circuit workouts where in one hour we'd do what we used to do in two days. Every workout we’d do stuff that really challenged our minds, and our full body – core, legs, everything. We wouldn't even know what we were going to do each training session, so it kept us on edge. We had to be ready for anything. One day we'd show up prepared for a big lift and Tony would just give us a day off. The next day we’d show up and do a crazy five-hour workout and all puke. It was just a really intense summer. It was good for our minds.

Has being stronger and fitter changed your skiing style?
I'm available to be in a much more stacked position on my skis and push through really big turns. I was watching some video from last year. In the past, I was following my skis and letting my skis dictate where I was going. Now I'm really centered and balanced over my skis and I'm strong enough to really push and be driving forward. When it's bumpy I can plow through that stuff, which is a huge advantage. And I'm not as tired at the bottom of the hills.

What’s your outlook for next season?
I hope it keeps building, and I'm going to train this offseason so that it does. But right now I'm just really stoked to get back to the states and have some good Mexican food.