Stare into a downhiller's eyes in the starting gate and you will see the pinpoint focus of a world-class athlete in attack mode. Hermann Maier had it in Nagano, moments before his now-famous Olympic wreck.
Perhaps at the start of his flight he believed that inertia and sheer guts would pull him out of it. But when he reached his pole toward the earth and felt nothing, he must have known it was over. Were it not for his mirrored goggles, we could have seen precisely when Maier's look changed from one of invincibility to one of panic. Seconds later the Hermanator, "Das Munster," the most dominant man in the sport, came crashing down to earth.
Watching the spectacle from the comfort of home, one might have thought, "That man is crazy." And in the heat of competition, he was indeed possessed. Despite appearances, Maier and his fellow downhillers are not a pack of fearless fools with a death wish. Downhill, though it involves seemingly unreasonable risks, is in fact a thinking man's sport.
The mind has a capacity to prepare the body for things that go entirely against its basic survival instinct. A downhill racer routinely taps that capacity, and learns to depend on it. If there's one thing on which a downhiller's mind and body agree, it's that the safest gear in downhill is full-throttle. To back off is to invite the mountain to take charge of your fate.
Consequently, two disparate urges¿self preservation and the need for speed¿meet in the starting gate. From there, the downhiller's art is in knowing the thin line between courage and insanity, then forcing himself as close to that line as possible¿without going over.
To many observers, both familiar and unfamiliar with ski racing, Franz Klammer's 1976 Olympic gold medal winning run in Innsbruck, Austria, remains the enduring image of downhill racing. Though to spectators it looked like a wild, reckless rodeo ride, Klammer maintains he was in control. Just as a linebacker runs through his opponent, the downhiller throws himself down the mountain to confront hazards on his own terms. Klammer's longevity and success on the World Cup¿25 downhill wins over a decade, with no serious injuries¿ultimately proved his point. Yes, Klammer had natural gifts and a thirst for speed, but guts alone don't make for long careers in high-risk sports.
Former Swiss downhiller Bernhard Russi, who designed the past three Olympic courses and this month's World Championship track at Beaver Creek, Colo., believes that downhill is an innate undertaking. "You have to be somewhat fatalistic because you cannot calculate downhill. When you are going 90 mph and your skis are flying around, there has to be a desire that comes from your subconscious, telling you to go even faster." It may not be a higher calling, but it is an inner calling, as impossible to affect as it is to deny. Speed and danger keep the downhiller's heart beating. And for every male downhiller, there is one place that slakes the thirst.
The place is Kitzbühel, Austria, and the race is the Hahnenkamm, skiing's equivalent of the World Series. In a downhiller's universe, you are a rookie until you've successfully conquered it. The Streif, as the run is called, is not the longest or fastest in the world, but it is universally recognized as the most technically demanding, the hairiest and thus the most satisfying.
The tension surrounding the Hahnenkamm puts to bed any notions that downhillers don't get scared. "It's like a funeral at the start," explains former U.S. Ski Team downhiller Kyle Rasmussen, "especially during the course holds." A course hold means that somewhere down below, on the minefield of blind icy turns, wild jumps and cruelly abrupt compressions, a racer has gone down. The team radios start crackling as trainers fail to turn the volume down before the racers can hear the panic on the other end.
"The first year I was there they helicoptered three guysff the course on the first training run," recalls Rasmussen. Such delays give racers plenty of time to do something downhillers do far too much of anyway¿contemplate their fate.
The key to survival¿and success¿lies in mental preparation. "Seeing past the danger allows you to relax and move with the terrain," says Rasmussen. Sounds simple enough, but it's a tall order considering the Hahnenkamm's daunting history of wrecks and injuries, legendary carnage familiar to every competitor.
While the Hahnenkamm showcases downhill's intensity, a post-race peek inside Kitz-bühel's Londoner Bar defines catharsis. Here, in another time-honored tradition, the racers gather to revel in the success of surviving skiing's toughest test. They take turns tending bar, all of them soaking up their celebrity.
More than bravado, the feeling among the racers in the Londoner is one of mutual regard. By race day in Kitzbühel, there are typically about 40 competitors left in the field¿half that of a normal World Cup downhill. Even racers who have finished in the top 10 at other World Cup sites opt out of the Hahnenkamm because of the danger. This makes Kitzbühel's survivors an elite brotherhood, with a respect for what they can't control and a genuine appreciation for what they can.
That humility is essential for survival. I once had a downhill coach who grew up on a ranch. He would frequently remind us that, "A wild horse will hurt you, but a tame horse will kill you." He meant that we needed to pay attention, to have some fear in our hearts and to give every course the respect it deserves. Because sometimes, thanks to the democracy of fate, even the best physical and mental preparation isn't enough protection. Accidents¿bad accidents¿do happen.
Canadian Rob Boyd remembers watching from the finish area in Wengen, Switzerland, in 1991, when Gernod Reinstadler, a promising young Austrian, swung too wide in approaching the finish. His ski got caught in the safety netting and he was split apart like a chicken bone. "From the bottom it looked as if he was sliding over his ski," recalls Boyd. "But then the ski got longer, and we realized it was blood." Reinstadler sustained a compound fractured femur, which severed his femoral artery, and died later that night.
In 1994, tragedy struck on the women's circuit. Austrian Ulrike Maier¿a two-time World Champion in super G and the only mother on the World Cup circuit¿caught an edge on an icy downhill in Garmisch, Germany, struck her head against a timing stake and was killed. In an instant the myth that women's downhill was safer, more protected, had been shattered.
Hilary Lindh, who collected her first World Cup win the next week in Sierra Nevada, Spain, recalls the fallout from Maier's death. "It touched everyone so personally because it was such a fluky thing, and it could've happened to anyone," remembers Lindh. "Downhill is unpredictable. That's part of the rush. It brought everyone down to the ground and made us think about what we were doing."
Boyd and Lindh recall these tragic events thoughtfully, yet not over-dramatically. Racing downhill requires a constant analysis, evaluation of risks, dealing with fear and learning where to find confidence. There are times to excel and times when it is beyond your capacity. Good downhillers are bright enough to recognize the difference¿and patient enough to wait for their time to come.
That patience is in a constant tug-of-war with greed for the incredible feeling of power that comes with a good day of downhill. Words cannot begin to describe the raw sensation, but if you watch a downhiller flat out for speed, snow trailing off the skis like smoke, you can understand that power. And suddenly, the addiction doesn't seem so crazy. It is a conspiracy between mind, body and the mountain, to feel something unreasonable, elusive and short-lived.
To feel invincible.