Story by Amanda Ruggeri | Photo by Court Leve

Just three years ago, few casual observers of World Cup racing knew Travis Ganong. Today, the 27-year-old Californian is hailed as the future of the U.S. downhill team. And by none other than Daron Rahlves, the U.S. downhill star turned big mountain skier. "He's been chipping away consistently. It's just a matter of time," says Rahlves. "I think he's going to be the next guy that's going to win for the U.S. in Kitzbühel. It could be next year." Rahlves should know: In 2003, he became the first American to take Hahnenkamm gold in 44 years.

Those who have been watching Ganong know he didn't come out of nowhere. Even in a spotty 2012-2013 season, his seventh place at the Bormio downhill showed potential. Then, in seven of his last 10 World Cup downhill and super-G races of the 2014 season, Ganong placed in the top 10. Along came this season: Ganong clinched his first-ever gold at the Santa Caterina downhill in December, plus silver in the downhill at the World Ski Championships at Vail-Beaver Creek on the Birds of Prey course.

"He's a skier, not a ski racer," says Rahlves, who is a mentor to Ganong. "He's out there touring, doing backcountry skiing. He's not just going on groomed runs and taking more of the typical ski-racer approach. That's the way it should be."

I grew up as a racer and freeskier, but racing was always at the forefront. I always dreamed of winning World Cups and going to the Olympics. Now, the last two, three seasons, I'm finally doing it.

I want to open up a mountaintop hut or bar one day. In the U.S., we don't really have all these funky, full-of-culture mountaintop huts. We have huge base areas, but nothing really on top of the mountain.

I've been talking with a couple of my teammates—Steve Nyman, Marco Sullivan, and Andrew Weibrecht—about how we can bring that European ski culture back to the U.S. somehow, and about building little ski huts at our home areas and branching out from there. We're all ski racing right now. But it would be a fun way to transition.

There's this après ski bar up a T-bar at Kvitfjell. The guy who owns it has turned into a really good friend of ours. He has all this memorabilia from 30, 40, 50 years ago—amazing old skis and boots and jackets. This year, I was able to convince him to unscrew the skis from the wall and go up on a snowmobile at midnight. I took two runs on these 1963 Atomic skis with leather boots and old Norwegian bamboo poles with huge powder baskets. The owner wound up giving me the skis and boots after that. He wants me to put them up on the wall of my first hut one day.

Growing up, I wanted to emulate Daron Rahlves as a racer. He was not the biggest guy on the tour, and I'm not the biggest guy, either. Instead of relying on his brute strength and size, he was smarter than the other skiers and just better, technically. And the way he attacked and made tighter turns and tighter lines—he made time on some of the bigger guys who were carrying more speed. That's my style. That's what I try to ski like.

The most coveted prize is the overall title for downhill. That's bigger than an Olympic gold medal or World Championship medal or an individual win on the World Cup.

All the legends of the sport, all the greats have won the downhill title. But no American male has ever done it. That's definitely my number one focus.

I'm strong. I'm motivated. I'm healthy. I know how to go fast, but it's the mental side of it, figuring out how to be at the top of the game every weekend.

I grew up sailing on Tahoe. I love getting out on the boat, listening to music, swimming, and just enjoying the lake. It's like you're in the Caribbean. The water is super clean and clear; the sand is white. It's nice to get away from everything and feel like you're living on a boat for a day or two.

The reason my dad moved to Tahoe back in the day was because he could ski to work. He's a doctor. He moved there so he could skin from his back door up and over the ridge and ski down to work. That's driven our whole family since then.

I had a little accident and almost sliced my toe off. My dad stitched me up. My second toe was dangling and my third toe was almost off. It was messy. It was probably 20 or 30 stitches in one and 10 on the other. Moral of the story is: Don't wear flip-flops while you're biking.

I've worked really hard to balance racing and freeskiing. I travel with my freeskiing skis everywhere I can, trying to find those few days where I can go off and ski. It's getting harder and harder, the more I get into my career, to find those days to just go off skiing. It's really fun to win races and succeed at your sport, so it's easy to stay in the rhythm of that. But I love going off and finding new challenges on my skis.

Between Marco Sullivan and myself, we have about 15, 20 ski bags that we have to go around the world with. Going through the Atlanta airport with 30 bags was really awkward. People have no idea what we're doing. I was carrying my ski boots through the airport, and a guy thought they were bungee-jumping boots. Getting off the plane, I was like, "Yeah, they're totally bungee-jumping boots."

Read more interviews with up-and-coming skiers, like Banks Gilberti, Thayne Rich, Sander Hadley, and McKenna Peterson.