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Courage under fire

Kildow, Montillet-Carles ski after horrific accidents

Posted: Wednesday February 15, 2006 3:33PM; Updated: Wednesday February 15, 2006 3:34PM
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Lindsey Kildow was hospitalized after a horrific crash on Monday. She competed Wednesday and finished eighth.
Lindsey Kildow was hospitalized after a horrific crash on Monday. She competed Wednesday and finished eighth.
AP
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TURIN, Italy -- The face of downhill skiing stands before me, propped atop the small, strong body of France's 32-year-old Carole Montillet-Carles, who entered Wednesday's Olympic downhill as the defending gold medalist. Hers is a round, impish face that invites kind words and smiles and gives back the same.

On this day, long after the race, her face looks as if it has been beaten with baseball bats. There is a long, jagged cut across the base of her forehead and another wound across the bridge of her nose. Both are ringed with various bruised shades of yellow, purple and red. Both of her expressive eyes are swollen, nearly closed and blackened. If she were a character in an Xbox game, I would not let my teenage son play it.

A skier rides above Montillet-Carles in a chairlift and shouts, "I love you.''

Montillet-Carles looks up and shouts back, "Have you seen my face?'' She turns back to her questioners. "Thank God I am married,'' she says, "or else I would not have found anyone.''

In mainstream American sport, we award medals of valor to football and hockey players for surviving the ungodly collisions that ensue in every game. We praise boxers for taking a punch, baseball players for standing up to fastballs and racecar drivers for driving at 185 mph.

Downhill ski racers are as brave as any of them, and sometimes, like on Wednesday in the little mountain village of San Sicario, Italy, that bravery sweeps beyond the boundaries we can measure with words and into another place altogether.

Rewind to Monday afternoon on this same slope in the mountains 60 miles outside of Turin. It is the day of the second official training run for the women's downhill. Montillet-Carles, who won the 2002 downhill at Snowbasin just four months after her friend and teammate Regine Cavagnoud, 32, was killed in a training collision on the glacier above Soelden, Austria, is the seventh skier to push from the start house.

High on the course she comes off a jump, lands awkwardly and falls hard, carrying deep into the safety netting at the side of the course. It will later be explained that she suffered a deep bruise on the backside of her ribcage and landed hard on her face, crushing her racing goggles against her skull and creating the mask of nasty facial bruises and abrasions that make her look so chillingly damaged two days later. She is taken 10 miles away to Sestriere for medical treatment.

Nine racers after Montillet-Carles, 21-year-old U.S. skier Lindsey Kildow, who has won three World Cup downhills in the last two years, takes a digger that looks even more nasty. Tucking through a set of rolling bumps, Kildow snags the edge of her right ski. Her tips cross, forcing her knees to buckle, and she is spun around and then launched into the air at more than 50 miles an hour, landing hard on her left hip and buttocks. A camera shows her laying motionless and crying at the side of the course.

"I just remember being in a tuck and going over a roller,'' Kildow recalled two days later. "And all of a sudden I'm looking up at the course.''

Kildow is taken to the bottom of the run in a sled and flown to a Turin hospital by helicopter. The first report received by her boyfriend, Thomas Vonn, says Kildow has massive head injuries and a broken pelvis. It isn't nearly that bad, but Kildow has painful bruises on her hip and pelvis. Her mother, Linda Krohn, has just landed in Milan and hears of Lindsey's injuries during the two-hour drive to be at her daughter's bedside. Picabo Street, the 1998 Olympic gold medalist who has been mentoring Kildow, spends several hours in her hospital room. "Like the best friend you could ever have,'' says Vonn.

When the sun rises on Tuesday morning, it seems inconceivable that either Montillet-Carles or Kildow will race in Wednesday's downhill. Yet early that morning Kildow gathers her belongings and tries to escape from the hospital. She is stopped by doctors and nurses who want her to get another CT scan of her head before releasing her. This is a kid who, at age 13, while relocating from Minnesota to Colorado with her mother, rode out a Rocky Mountain blizzard in an SUV at a truck stop. And never cried. Of course she wants to race in the downhill.

On Wednesday morning there are two separate announcements in the press center at San Sicario: Both Kildow and Montillet-Carles will race. Their performances are athletically anticlimactic. Kildow, who was clearly a gold medal contender, finishes a respectable eighth. "I was just so happy she finished,'' said Krohn. Such is every mother's worry. Montillet-Carles struggles to place 28th.

It is, from a common sense perspective, unfathomable that either Kildow or Montillet-Carles skied in Wednesday's race. Theirs is a contrary vocation, racing downhill on bulletproof ice at speeds exceeding 75 miles an hour aboard skis built for speed and not for control. They wear only a helmet, a minimal back protector and a Lycra speed suit. To do this healthy is courageous. To do it two days after crashing is stunning.

But not to the skiers.

"My back is real painful,'' Kildow says after the race. "I'm not feeling that great. But I never considered not racing because of the pain.'' After the race she was not satisfied with survival; she was disappointed at not finishing higher. "It's the Olympics,'' she said.

Montillet-Carles skied with her swollen left eye held open by tape so she could see. "It was my decision,'' Montillet-Carles says. "I could not have stayed in my room and watched the race. I was in pain, but I knew that I would be able to clench my teeth and bear it.''

They are not finished. Kildow is expected to skip Friday's combined event, but both Kildow and Montillet-Carles will ski in the Super G on Sunday. It is another fast race, with hundreds of chances to crash and be hurt again.

No matter. They are ski racers. They race. When I see the helmet, I will envision the battered face beneath it.

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