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The future is now

Valenta seizes aerials mantle with fantastic jump

Posted: Tuesday February 19, 2002 8:55 PM

 
DEER VALLEY -- Among the many red, white and blue signs held aloft by fans at the aerials jump in Deer Valley was one that said GO BIG SKY, ERIC. This was a play on words for the benefit of Montana native Eric Bergoust, one of four Americans in the menís aerials finals and a heavy favorite for the gold medal. After the 11 other finalists had taken both their jumps, the gold was within Bergoustís grasp. As he launched himself off the 71-degree ramp, Bergie goofed.

The defending Olympic gold medallist went too big. Fearing that he was going too slowly, Bergoust "juiced" his takeoff. "He shouldnít have," said U.S. freestyle coach Jeff Wintersteen afterward. As he sailed over 50 feet in the air, working his way through a triple backflip with four twists, all was not well. "Iím probably not going to be land this no matter what I do," Bergoust recalls thinking. Indeed, he made a hash of his landing, thudding into the snow back first, like a crash-test dummy, before somehow standing up on his skis.

In that instant, Bergoust lost his gold medal to Ales Valenta, a 29-year-old Czech who is both his rival and heir. Four years ago, Bergoust raised the bar for his sport by becoming the first to nail two quad-twisting triple flips in his program. On Tuesday at Deer Valley, Valenta gave 14,000-plus fans a glimpse of the future of aerials. After absolutely sticking his first jump, a triple backflip with four twists, the Czech upped the ante on himself. His second jump, a triple backflip with five twists, had never been attempted in competition. Although he had landed it roughly 10 times on snow, by his recollection -- "Thatís like, nothing", he said later -- Valenta decided to give it a whirl when the stakes were highest.

Rocketing off the lip of the "kicker" like a clown shot from a cannon, he began spinning and flipping like a dervish: two twists in the first somersault, two on the second, one on the third. The problem with trying three flips and five twists, Valenta later explained, is that the ground is coming up at you at 20 m.p.h., and you have no idea where it is. "Youíre pretty much lost, so just have to follow you feelings and listen to the coaches until you bring it down," he said. Valenta did both, and brought it down, the first quintuple-twisting triple in the history of his sport.

"Heís psycho," said Joe Pack, the silver medallist, of Valenta. Pack calling anyone psycho is laughable: alone among the jumpers, he can be seen grinning in the butt-puckering moments before he points his skis down the ramp. Alone among the jumpers, he plays one of his skis like an air guitar after successful jumps. Pack played free safety for his high school football team, leading the team in tackles, enjoying the rush he felt whenever he lit up a running back. While the announcer at the venue asked for quiet before each jump, Pack stood above the kicker and countermanded those orders, raising his arms, demanding noise. "I want them to have a good time, as well," he says.

He was just being a good host. Joe and his parents and his five brothers and sisters moved to Park City 10 years ago. Deer Valley is his home turf. That became obvious during the raucous ovations that preceded and followed both his jumps Tuesday, a pair of huge quad-twisting triples that had him in second place with two guys left to jump. One was Alexei Grichin, the Russian whose splayed-leg landing would relegate him to bronze.

The next was Bergoust, whose misbegotten second jump sunk his medal hopes while assuring Pack the silver. "Cinderella story," Pack riffed afterward, pulling out his Bill Murray Caddyshack impersonation. "Out of nowhere Ö a former greens keeper." During the rollicking press conference that followed, Pack recalled the difficulties he had jumping on the World Cup circuit as a student at Park City High. "Iíd say, ĎOkay, Iím gonna miss 75 days this year.í They werenít really into that.í" He tried to describe the sensation of inverted aerial skiing: "Has anyone here ever ridden a motorcycle 100 miles per hour?"

And he gave it up for the guy seated to his left. "Ales is definitely ahead of his time," he said. "Iím proud of him." They exchanged an impromptu hand slap. When a reporter asked Pack where the sport was headed, in the wake of the afternoonís events, the answer seemed obvious: Go ask Ales.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Austin Murphy is in Utah covering the Olympics aerials competition for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes coverage from Salt Lake City.

 
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Valenta wins aerials; American Pack second
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