Clear and Present DangerThe Winter Games are a thrillfest of high-speed,high-risk sports--and the fear of a career-ending crashis never far from the athletes' minds

February 04, 2002

I think it's the coolest thing in the world to be waiting at the
top of the hill and have that feeling in your throat like you're
gonna puke, and your mouth is totally dry, and you've got that
buzzing sensation in your ears because you're scared to death of
what you're about to do. --CHAD FLEISCHER, U.S. DOWNHILL SKIER

The Winter Olympic Games are different. They are colder, smaller
and newer than their summer counterpart, a sweet, quadrennial
snow-covered block party in comparison to an outsized corporate
world's fair. With the possible exception of hockey, the events
in the Winter Games are beyond the easy reach of the
shot-and-beer American sports-viewing public, which does not
embrace the sports exploits of Norwegians, Finns, Austrians or
figure skaters the way it does those of, say, Curt Schilling or
Warren Sapp. On a more visceral level, the Winter Games are
different because they inspire fear--in spectators, athletes,
everybody. Citius, Altius, Fortius...Dangerous. Ancient
concepts mainlining adrenaline.

Skiers like Fleischer (who suffered multiple injuries to his
right knee in a training run on Jan. 10) plummet at speeds
exceeding 75 mph down a mountainside injected with water to
ensure an icy-slick, consistent racing surface hard enough to be
bulletproof. "Most of the courses we ski, you could run on ice
skates," says Daron Rahlves, 2001 world champion in the slightly
curvier Super G. The racers ride not on the bottoms of their
skis, but on the razor-sharp edges, leaning their bodies at such
severe angles in search of clean, speed-holding turns that the
sides of their boots rub the surface of the snow.

Their work produces moments of high drama in which victory is
tethered to survival. Austria's Franz Klammer's hell-bent, gold
medal downhill run at Innsbruck in 1976 was contested entirely on
the edge that separates triumph and wipeout, every turn and every
jump a near crash. Two decades later the signature moment of the
Nagano Olympics came when another Austrian, Hermann (the
Herminator) Maier, barreled at 65 mph into the treacherous, icy
Alpen Turn, a sweeping, left-hand swerve against the fall line,
and was launched into the sky. He crashed through two lines of
safety netting and later growled famously, "It wasn't Lufthansa."
Maier limped away with a sprained knee and a bruised shoulder and
went on to win two gold medals, but the image of his crash--a body
splayed, spiderlike, in the air, a helpless grimace on his
grizzled face--remains unforgettable.

Skis and speed merged tragically in the final months of 2001:

--Oct. 31: Regine Cavagnoud of France, the 2001 Super G world
champion, died of massive head injuries suffered in a collision
with a German coach who had crossed into her path during training
on the Pitztal glacier in Austria.

--Nov. 18: Hannes Trinkl of Austria, a bronze medalist in the
Nagano downhill, fractured his skull in a training crash in
Schladming, Austria. Though doctors initially feared for his
life, Trinkl has recovered and plans to compete in Salt Lake
City.

--Dec. 8: Silvano Beltrametti's legs were paralyzed after a crash
during a World Cup downhill in Val-d'Isere, France. Beltrametti,
22, of Switzerland flew through safety netting "like a dart going
through paper," Fleischer said, and hit a rock.

Hair-raising speed isn't only for skiers. Lugers race even
faster, riding feetfirst down a solid ice roller coaster on
bladelike runners. In mid-October, U.S. Olympic slider Tony
Benshoof screamed down the Olympic run in Park City at 86.6 mph,
the fastest recorded speed in luge history. That mark should be
obliterated during the Games, on a course with a precipitous
early elevation drop and gentle curves. "During the Olympics all
the top guys will be going mid-90s, for sure," says Benshoof, a
consistent top 10 finisher in World Cup events. Skeleton racers
will use the same course, running at slightly slower speeds
(their runners are beveled and their steering is more dodgy than
lugers', keeping speeds in the low 80s), but making up for it by
sliding headfirst, with their chins two inches off the ice.

Aerial freestyle skiers, children of the extreme sports movement,
launch themselves at 45 mph off a 14-foot-high, 72-degree
ramp--"Basically, a quarter-pipe," says U.S. 1998 Olympic aerials
gold medalist Eric Bergoust--and do as many as three flips and
four twists while reaching heights of more than 50 feet.

Ski jumpers, the quintessential Winter Olympic flyers, are the
inverse of aerialists, skiing downhill at 60 mph before snapping
their long, wide, jumping skis into a V shape and sailing
earthward, fighting gravity for distances that can exceed 400
feet. "Have you ever watched a flock of birds flying along the
surface of a lake, and it looks like they're going to land, but
they don't?" says U.S. ski jumper Alan Alborn. "That's us."

For all of them--the downhillers, sliders, flippers and
fliers--success is measured not only in distance or time or style
but also in winning the war between committing to and bailing out
of an unnatural activity. There is the finest line between
throwing the body completely into a ski jump and holding back
ever so slightly. That modicum of restraint feels like sanity,
yet frequently translates to defeat. "The best guys," says former
U.S. ski jumper Jeff Hastings, a fourth-place finisher at the
1984 Olympics, "have figured out how to get their bodies to do
recklessly what their brains are telling them doesn't make
sense."

Occasionally the brain wins. After taking a gold medal in the
Super G at the 1998 Olympics, U.S. skier Picabo Street tapped her
brakes in the downhill and finished sixth, only .17 of a second
out of the medals. Racing on unpredictable, buttery slush, Street
skied cautiously enough to preserve her health. "I had a master
plan," she said after the downhill that day in Nagano. "But I
didn't have the confidence to execute it in these conditions,
because I didn't want to go into the fence."

Always the brain fights the body, and athletes must, like race
car drivers, dismiss anxiety and whistle past the graveyard.
Duncan Kennedy, the most successful singles slider in U.S. luge
history, says, "As soon as fear enters the equation, you're
finished."

Aerialist Matt Chojnacki, a 1998 Olympian who refuses to compete
in Salt Lake City because quad flips aren't permitted at the
Games, says, "Even though you've done thousands of jumps, there's
a lot of anxiety right before you turn toward the kicker [the
ramp]. You try to think about a few key things. Lock out your
knees. Press your hips. But right at the bottom of the jump,
that's where there's fear. That's where bad things can happen.
You have to let your body take over. It's the only way to do it."

The battle in the mind is especially pitched once an athlete has
survived a violent crash. In the first week of February 1993,
U.S. skier Erik Schlopy, now a slalom and giant slalom
specialist, pushed away from the start house for a downhill
training run preceding the world championships in Morioka, Japan.
Schlopy fought for more than a minute with a course that had been
rendered unpredictable by overnight snow. Low on the mountain
Schlopy lost control coming off a large bump and was sent
chillingly through the air, his skis thrust vertically out in
front of his flailing body, perpendicular to the course. He
sailed 220 feet before landing on his back. "To be correct," says
Schlopy, "I flew 220 feet at 70 miles an hour, skipped off the
ground and then flew another 70 or 80 feet."

Schlopy's was the type of explosive crash usually reserved for
violent video games. He broke his back and two ribs, displaced
his sternum and punctured a lung. His tongue was nearly severed
when his jaw slammed shut on the first impact. "A whole new stage
of pain," he says. He spent six days in a Japanese hospital
before being flown to the U.S., where he spent several months
rehabbing. His psyche would recover more slowly.

"I was an emotional wreck for two years," Schlopy says. "Going
over rolls at high speeds, I had this vision of flying into a
parking lot. Sitting in the hospital, I knew it would be a while
before I had the desire to do this again. I'm lucky I'm not
paralyzed, and frankly, I could have very easily been killed."

More than two years have passed since U.S. skier Katie Monahan
crushed cartilage in her right knee when she crashed coming off a
downhill jump during training in Zermatt, Switzerland. Yet she
continues to search for the courage to again press the speed
envelope. "You get to a certain point where it's time to pick up
speed, and then you run into this big wall," Monahan says. "You
say, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm scared.' Being scared does not lead to
skiing well, or fast. The willingness to lay it out there, on the
edge--that's the difference between 40th place in a World Cup race
and making the podium. But you're not sure you want to do that,
because it could injure you. I can't tell you the answer or how
to find it."

Skiing is the wildest ride of all. "Compared to downhill, we're
as safe as tennis," says Kennedy, the former luger. Even across
Alpine disciplines there are differences. Downhill is faster and
straighter than Super G, which in turn is faster and straighter
than giant slalom. Slowest of all is slalom, a precision run
through tightly bunched gates, in which technique and skill are
more useful than speed and where some racers don't wear helmets.

So why is Alpine skiing the most frightening of the winter
sports? After all, you can be only so safe spinning on freestyle
skis five stories in the air, hurtling down a bob run or refusing
gravity while floating above a ski-jump landing hill. The
difference is this: Aerials and ski jumping are repetitive; every
hill is designed to be the same, barring weather. The goal is to
perfect a routine that will repeat itself, like a golf swing or a
figure skating performance. "In Alpine every run is different, so
there's much more reacting going on," says Hastings. Luge and
skeleton fall somewhere in the middle. Their runs are not
identical, but considerably less varied than mountains. In luge
and skeleton the slider's goal is stillness rather than movement,
hence three-time Olympic singles luge gold medalist Georg Hackl
of Germany is nicknamed the Dead Man for his ability to ride as
motionless as a corpse.

Precise and technical though it may be, ski jumping remains the
most frightening-looking sport of all. "The TV angle, where it
looks like we're being launched into space, is very deceiving,"
says Alborn. "We're never more than 10 or 15 feet off the
ground."

True, says Hastings, but "that's misleading. You can't stop in
flight and go straight down because of the speed through the air.
It's more like being 30 or 40 feet in the air. It's not totally
safe, definitely."

Crashes are imminent when a jumper commits too much to the jump
and his skis pop up into his face, or too little and they fall
away from him. In either case there's not much he can do to
compensate. "What sucks about ski jumping is that you know when
you're going to crash," says 17-year-old Clint Jones, one of
Alborn's Olympic teammates. "Your skis go vertical, and you just
say to yourself, This is going to hurt."

Winter daredevils tolerate all this risk and pain in pursuit of
the singular rush that comes with speed and flight and, in the
end, survival and maybe even the occasional victory. Their
journey is as intoxicating as the result, as the world slows and
shrinks until nothing exists outside the helmet. "Time slows
down," says Lincoln DeWitt, the 2001 World Cup skeleton champion.
"I watched a tape of myself between turns 10 and 11 at Park City,
and it lasted one second. I had to rewind it a bunch to take it
in, it happened so quickly. But here's the amazing thing: When I
was running the course, I remember having three distinct thoughts
in that one second."

Fleischer describes the rush of a ski run like this: "You're in
the start house at the top of the downhill and there's chaos. The
crowd below is going nuts and a helicopter is shooting film above
you and the scoreboard is there, and then you push off and it all
goes away and you're in a dream. Then you get to the finish and
the sound explodes again like the spaceship hitting hyperspace in
Star Wars. Poooom! Awesome. Then you can't wait to do it again."

Nineteenth-century Olympic ideals--faster, higher--racing into the
21st century at warp speed. "Ninety miles an hour on your back,
on a little sled," says luger Benshoof. "How does that feel?
Cool, that's how. Pretty cool."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PASCAL GEORGE/AFP Regina Haeusl of Germany broke her right leg in two places while wiping out in a 2000 downhill in Italy. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID DUPREY/AP In Nagano, Italian skier Luca Cattaneo needed an airlift after crashing; elsewhere, Italy's Waltraud Schiefer (far left) and Canada's Chris Moffat and Eric Pothier learned luge's hard lessons. COLOR PHOTO: CARL YARBROUGH [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JENS MEYER/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: FABRICE COFFRINI/AP Street, the queen of knee reconstructions, tore her ACL and broke her femur in a near-career-ending 1998 crash in Switzerland. COLOR PHOTO: CARL YARBROUGH To air is Hermann: Maier's spectacular blowout left him with a sprained knee and a bruised shoulder.

"Most of the courses we ski, you could run on ice skates," says
downhiller Rahlves.

"It wasn't Lufthansa," growled Maier after flying off the course
at 65 mph in Nagano.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)