Downhill–with its autobahn speeds and spectacular crashes—may be the mountain's riskiest event, but the turny, precise technical courses demand a level of exactitude unmatched in the Winter Olympic arena.
Giant Slalom The Austrians—perennially dominant across the alpine field—prize the GS above all and consider it to be the skier’s event. It requires deft precision and measured abandon, making it, arguably, the most challenging discipline to master. Thank goodness for malleable polycarbonate gate poles, which give a little when racers hit them. Even at relatively slow GS speeds, forces can exceed 75 gs—roughly equivalent to a full-speed helmet-to-helmet collision in football—as racers brush gates aside with their forearms and shoulders.
I recalled how Jim Tracy, a United States ski-team coach, described the first time he saw Vonn ski. “She’s hauling down the mountain, her skis probably going 60,” Tracy told me, “but the rest of her was hardly moving. It was like watching water flow down a hill.” —Bill Pennington, from his profile of Lindsey Vonn in this weekend's New York Times Magazine
It’s only when things go wrong that you get a sense of how absurdly dangerous alpine racing’s speed events are.
Downhill Viewed in the two dimensions of television, downhill looks deceptively tame. No camera angle really captures the rate at which these speed freaks travel, the steepness of the terrain, the forces they withstand or the heights at which they soar when speed and terrain conspire to spit them into the void. Should a skier make one tiny error of line or balance, one momentary loss of vision or tactical miscue and, in an instant, Olympic dreams crash and burn.
When we say we're "in the zone," usually we mean the Deli Zone sandwich shop over on Boulder's University Hill. But sometimes we mean we're skiing "in the zone" -- slicing the fall line like a hot knife, thinking not about how tired or old or unskilled we are but about how bomber and awesome and stardom-worthy our skiing is.