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Clear and Present Danger
Tim Layden
February 04, 2002
The Winter Games are a thrillfest of high-speed, high-risk sports—and the fear of a career-ending crash is never far from the athletes' minds
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February 04, 2002

Clear And Present Danger

The Winter Games are a thrillfest of high-speed, high-risk sports—and the fear of a career-ending crash is never far from the athletes' minds

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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.

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 hellbent, 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'Isère, France. Beltra-metti, 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."

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