Contributor: Ben Steiner
During the FIS World Cup season, Canada’s Kris Mahler races alongside some of the world’s finest athletes. In the offseason, there is a chance you will run into him on the road while he travels around North America in his Volkswagen Westfalia van.
A veteran of the Canadian team, Mahler has built himself a name on the slopes, on social media and across North America as a Volkswagen Westfalia van connoisseur and influencer.
One of the Albertan’s first National Team experiences came in Whistler, BC, in the summer of 2014. Without affordable housing in the area, Mahler, and other teammates, made their temporary homes in vans and other vehicles.
“It is kind of a funny story, it might seem crazy that the national team members were living in vans, but it is one of those summers that I look back on now and is probably the most fun I’ve ever had in an offseason training with my teammates,” he said.
The then 20-year-old was back at home in Canmore, Alberta, when he first found the van with a for sale sign on it down the street. His father had owned a Westfalia van around a similar age and helped restore the 1987 edition for Kris to head to Whistler.
While the living situation might have been less than ideal for a handful of athletes, they took advantage of the Whistler Athletes Centre for bathing and cooking. “It was fun, we got really close, and everyone was kind of in the same boat.”
Living in the van that summer, Mahler fell in love with van life and the culture around it. With his newfound passion, he held onto the van and has built his life around skiing, van life and other active pursuits.
These days, Mahler finds himself wearing his van life love on his helmet as the GoWesty logo plasters his head on World Cup slopes. GoWesty, based in California, is a company dedicated to the van lifestyle and restoring Volkswagen Westfalia campers.
“Somehow, my Instagram came up in a board meeting for GoWesty down in California, and they had an ambassador program, and they brought on a lot of van lifers,” said Mahler. “They thought the idea of an athlete living out of their van was a cool twist, and they reached out to me, and the rest is history.”
With a similar motto of “work hard, play hard,” the two form a near-perfect partnership, with Mahler enjoying social media and GoWesty benefiting from having a world-class athlete on their social side.
While living out of the van in Whistler was his first experience in van life, his finest came in 2016 when he and former Canadian national team athlete Ned Ireland hopped in the ‘Westy’ and drove down to Colorado for a Nor-Am race and a tour up West Coast America.
Their plan was to ski, surf and bike around the U.S., but the length and luxury of the trip hinged upon winning the race and putting some of the prize money in their pockets to fund the rest of the trip.
“We loaded it [the van] up with way too much gear for what we were doing. We had our race skis, our powder skis, our touring skis, a few surfboards and both bikes,” Mahler recalled. “If we came first and second in that race, the trip was going to be a bit longer and a bit more fun, being out more and enjoying good food.”
The Canadian pair raced to the 1-2 finish that they needed and continued on their trek through Nevada, Utah, and up the coast of California, surfing and biking all the way back up to Canada. “That was probably the most memorable trip that I’ve ever done in a van. It’s one of the first ones, and it was with one of my best friends.”
Although the trip created everlasting memories, Mahler’s goal of a World Cup victory had yet to come. While a World Cup medal was at his mind’s forefront, he also had aspirations of upgrading his van to a Westfalia Synchro, the four-wheel-drive edition. With both thoughts in his mind, he combined the two.
“I had kind of made a little promise to myself that if I ever win a World Cup that I was going to get it, that was kind of what I was going to treat myself with, and that sort of ended up happening,” Mahler said. “I won my first world cup, and the cards ended up falling in the right place; I ended up finding a Synchro in Victoria.”
Despite having a Synchro van, 2021’s summer has not had extravagant trips, as Mahler focuses in the gym and on the slopes ahead of the Olympic season, where his sights fixate on Beijing 2022. “This is the best I’ve felt heading into the season into a long time, maybe the best ever,” said Mahler, who has still gone for weekend van trips.
As the days get shorter, the leaves get crispier, and Canadians pull on their flannels, the page flips on Kris Mahler’s routines as he gets back on snow and leaves the van in Canada while he goes overseas chasing World Cup triumphs.