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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 taster and straighter than Super G, which in turn is faster and straighter than giant slalom. Slowest of all is slalom, a precision ran 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 rive 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.