Skiers fear, and know, accidents happen

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Four years after the Turin Olympics, Picabo Street can still paint a striking picture of a half-broken Lindsey Vonn. Street can remember sitting in a Turin hospital, looking into tearful eyes struggling through fear and doubt. Cruel momentum had stolen Vonn's body up in a blazing turn during a training run, then mercilessly skipped her like a stone across a frozen mountain. Her back and hips were badly bruised, dwarfed only by a battered psyche.

With the Olympics just two days away, Street arrived to be Vonn's anchor at that moment, and came armed with two gifts. In her hands, she carried a plate overflowing with Italian pasta. And on her lips, she offered the anthem of an entire Olympic ski culture.

Everyone crashes once. Champions dare to do it again.

"I remember her lying there," Street says now, "and it was all so vivid and really crossroad-ish. You just knew it was time to get into hashing out the dangerous stuff. I told her, 'You're going to crash. It's part of it. In order to win at that level, you have to ski right on the edge of crashing. And in order to know that you are skiing on the edge of out of control, you have to go past the line every now and again.' "

American Andrew Weibrecht likes to learn from losing control.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

And when that line bites back, skiers have spent their lives learning what to do to limit their own suffering. For decades, audiences watching the Winter Olympics have had a front row seat to the unforgiving marriage of speed, ice and snow. Tragically, the Vancouver Games hadn't even begun when we were reminded of it again on Friday, with the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who crashed violently at the end of a training run.

It was a sobering moment, hinting at the danger that will reach across many sports in Vancouver. Thanks to a mix of technology, training and course tweaking, the Winter Games are as fast as ever. And Alpine skiing is no different. Vonn is a prime example of the high performance tinkering, evidenced by her reliance on men's skis in her downhill and super-G disciplines – skis which allow her to go faster, slice harder and generally ramp up the brute force momentum in her runs.

But like all athletes, Alpine skiers have found ways to adjust to the risks. Not only do champions crash, they spent years learning how to crash – a set of ground rules to draw upon in the split second when an inevitable fall is coming. It's a sort of emergency guide to engaging catastrophe, then figuring out how to control the ensuing chaos.

"You can gain a lot of information from crashing," said Andrew Weibrecht, who will be competing for the U.S. in three Alpine disciplines. "In some cases, you can manipulate it. And mentally, it teaches you a lot. … It sort of takes the cockiness out of you when you get your ass kicked by a mountain."

For this generation of skiers, it's the debacle that is forever seared into their collective consciousness. Hermann Maier's crash in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, will forever be one of the miraculous testaments to the luck and skill that often is the difference between serious injury and walking away from a crash.

"It's one of the most unbelievable things I have ever seen in the sport," said U.S. skier Ted Ligety, who will compete in four Alpine disciplines in Vancouver. "It's probably one of my earliest Olympic memories. It was just amazing."

A strong, explosive risk-taker on the mountain, Maier burst onto the skiing scene just one year before the Nagano Games, winning his first World Cup event. But it was his crash – and what he did afterward – that made him one of the most iconic figures to this current generation of skiers.

Taking part in the downhill, he took off on a sun-drenched course in conditions considered to be extremely favorable. But just 18 seconds into his run, after one jump and picking up speed in a straightaway and right turn, Maier's skis failed to grip some ice going into a dramatic left turn and downward slope.

The results were as unforgettable as they were terrifying: Maier lifting off the ground out of control as the landscape dropped out from under him, then flying through the air parallel to the ground while a horrified crowd bellowed in unison. Maier hung in the air for a full 1.5 seconds, turning completely upside down, and landing squarely on his head and shoulders. He then cart-wheeled six times, sending his skis and poles exploding away from his body, and crashing through two sets of safety netting before finally coming to rest face down almost 50 yards from where his body first hit the ground.

Maier won two golds after a legendary crash in 1998.
(Elise Amendola/AP)

When Maier's body finally came to a stop, there was every reason to believe he was dead. It appeared to be the worst wipeout since Yugoslavian ski jumper Vinko Bogataj rocketed off a ramp in the 1970 Ski-flying World Championships, resulting in a crash that would be immortalized as "The Agony of Defeat" in ABC's Wide World of Sports intro. But amazingly, Maier not only survived his crash, but he walked off under his own power. Days later, showing the kind of mettle that Street would try to relay to Vonn after her tumble, Maier took gold in the super-G and giant slalom.

"I was very fast and there was a lot of wind from the back side," Maier told reporters afterward. "I went up in the air and was looking at the sky. I looked down at the snow and waited for the crash."

The sheer brutality of the moment and Maier's ability to rebound and capture gold would earn him a Sports Illustrated cover – an extreme rarity for a non-U.S. born skier – and a place in the hearts of fans worldwide. In one moment, he became a stunning example of resiliency both physically and mentally and would never come close to living up to his nickname as "The Herminator."

"That was awesome," Weibrecht said, recalling the first time he saw the crash. "The guy went down, landed and got up. Then he won two gold medals. How do you compete with that, you know?"

But Maier's pinwheel in Nagano is more than just a miraculous clip on YouTube. It's actually a prime example that illustrates how luck and some manipulation can make all the difference in a fall. Because while all crashes aren't controllable, elite skiers do have a highly tuned ability to sort out variables inside the millisecond when they lose control.

"It all goes in slow motion," said T.J. Lanning, a U.S. Skier whose run to Vancouver was halted by a fall on the World Cup circuit that dislocated his knee and fractured a vertebrae. "A crash I had in Kitzbuhel [Austria], where I injured my knee, when I watch it on video, it happened in just a few seconds. But when it was occurring, I had time to realize, 'OK, I just blew out my knee, now here comes the net – what can I do to not make this worse?' You're in the moment and the adrenaline is pumping. You're not really thinking about crashing. You're thinking about, 'How can I save this?'"

Many skiers say years of high speed training and falling teaches them adjustments that become almost unconscious reactions. And Maier illustrated some of them. Some of the important points that made the difference:

When Maier was launched in the air, he used a whirling, flapping motion with his arms and poles to try to maintain some balance while flying through the air. Although the tactic didn't work – his body was eventually totally inverted – it is an example of how skiers will attempt to right themselves as long as they have some control over their own balance.

As Lanning put it, "From the instant that you feel yourself catch an edge or you have any kind of inclination you might crash, you try and save it to the last possible second."

As Maier came to the ground, he lifted his skis into the air, keeping them from digging into the snow and turf. Some luck played into it as well, when he skis snapped off his boots from the force of the impact. But this is key for most skiers, who make keeping their skis up one the first priorities during a fall. The tactic keeps the skis from catching into the ground and contorting a knee – something that is a primary factor in the massive amount of knee injuries suffered by Alpine skiers.

"If I can, I'll click off my skis so they don't catch in a fence," Ligety said. "Your skis can be really dangerous to you when you get into those situations. If they get caught anywhere, they'll blow out your knee like it's nothing."

Although it appeared to be sheer luck, Maier hit the initial set of netting with his back first, which is among the safest ways to roll into a fence, because it once again reduces the chance of a boot or ski getting caught and ripping ligaments. Maier went boots first into the second net, but was fortunate enough to not have either of his feet catch as he tumbled through.

There is a handful of other "don'ts" when falling that aren't illustrated. Coaches tell skiers not to attempt to get up during a fall, because it can cause a ski to catch, or bounce a knee into the face or jaw. And when falling, if possible, attempt to keep your body in alignment, lessening the likelihood of fractures or torn muscles, tendons and ligaments.

By no means does every skier follow a defined set of rules. Often, crashes come with no warning, and can't be managed in any way. But it's a very tangible – and in some ways, fruitful – part of the sport. As Street told Vonn, a measure of disaster can help the elite know where their line of control ends, and thus defines their ability to master it. And while you'd think most skiers wouldn't want to watch their own demise, that's not necessarily the case.

"Some guys don't watch their crashes, but I love watching mine," Weibrecht said. "They're awesome. It's almost as important to watch your crashes to see what you did wrong, as it is to watch a good run and see what you did right. I need to know both ends of the spectrum. … It helps me to make equipment changes and things like that. I think I've actually had stronger results from things that I've figured out from crashes."

Added U.S. skier Erik Fisher, "When you're pushing the envelope, you're eventually going to make a mistake. But to get better, you have to be willing to push like that and make those mistakes. Crashing is part of it. And crashing and walking away can be the difference in a career."

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