Winter Olympics 2002 Winter Olympics 2002


This emotion was real

Skiers cry for joy and sadness at downhill

Posted: Tuesday February 12, 2002 7:17 PM
Updated: Wednesday February 13, 2002 10:01 AM


In a mountain paradise on Tuesday afternoon, women skied very fast and then wept. They cried for joy and for sadness, for the memory of a long career now finished, for the tragedy of a life cut short. Olympic emotion has become a commodity, bottled and sold to the public as if always real when it is often manufactured and blown full of false air, all the better to be parceled out in three-minute television vignettes. This emotion was real.

Carole Montillet, a 28-year-old Frenchwoman who has never won a World Cup downhill, won the Olympic DH on a morning plucked from Wasatch screensavers. Deep blue skies and spectacular mountain sunshine illuminated the Snowbasin resort just past noon, when Montillet skied the race of her life, hitting the finish line in 1:39:56, a time that would be nearly half a second faster than silver medalist Isolde Kostner of Italy. Her performance was sublime, a downhiller's ideal mix of risk and control, a line-holding masterpiece on perfect snow. It was one skier's sweetest moment. And so much more.

Montillet, an 11-year veteran of the World Cup circuit, was the first French skier to come upon teammate Regine Cavagnoud on the slopes of an Austrian glacier after the horrific Oct. 29 training crash that would claim Cavagnoud's life two days later. Cavagnoud was not just a world champion (last year in Super-G), but a delightful and popular woman. Her death rocked the entire sport. "I looked up to Regine so much, because she was so poised and so friendly and such a wonderful athlete," says U.S. downhiller Jonna Mendes. "After she died, it was such a huge thing, not just to ski racing, but to all of skiing."

After the finish of Tuesday's race, Austrian Michaela Dorfmeister, who finished a deeply disappointed ninth (the victim of a two-hour start delay that rendered her chosen start No. 25 hopeless), tried to measure the meaning of Montillet's win. "It is good that she wins today," she said. And then she began crying, tears streaming down her checks. "For sure, it is good," she said, turning away.

In the months following Cavagnoud's death, the French women's team struggled to find a reason for skiing, for training. "For the French girls, something was always missing," said Swiss racer Sylviane Berthoud, who is close to many members of the French team. "And it was not because Regine was injured, it was because she was dead."

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Montillet took it hardest of all. At every stop on the World Cup, she was hit with questions about Cavagnoud. It is hard enough to endure tragedy without explaining it weekly. "It was very difficult," she said Tuesday. "Because I felt like I was losing my identity." She struggled to ski fast, to lose the fear that holds a downhiller back.

In late January, she left the tour and spent a week in San Diego with her coaches before coming to Salt Lake City. The vacation cleansed her. She carried the French flag in the Opening Ceremonies and then she skied beautifully in the downhill. In victory, she found herself once again connected to her teammate. "I think that she was with me," said Montillet. "I think that she helped me."

She used another word: "Liberated." No longer afraid. No longer frozen by grief. "I can start again fresh," she said.

Picabo Street, the best downhiller in U.S. history of any gender, did just the opposite, ending her career with a 16th-place finish. Like Dorfmeister, she had little chance on slow snow 40 minutes into the race. No problem. "I'm really relieved to be down here," she said at the bottom of the hill. "I'm relieved to be safe. I'm now down, and I wouldn't change anything."

In keeping with the spirit of the day.

Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden is in Utah covering the Olympics for the magazine and Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.

Related information
SI Daily: Day 5
Montillet crushes strong field to win downhill
Street retires after 16th place finish in downhill
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