Legends of the fall
WHISTLER, B.C. – Take a pristine white ribbon of snow, nearly 5,000 feet from top to bottom, and buff the track to an asphalt-hard sheen. Take 35 gates and screw them into the track. Add a finish corral at the bottom.
Then put 63 of the world’s best skiers at the top, and, one at a time, give them the ultimate carrot to chase: an Olympic medal. Fastest to the bottom, inside the gates, gets gold. Silver goes to second, bronze to third place. The rest get nothing.
The result is one of the world’s most exciting displays of sport to see in the flesh. And one of the most dangerous.
In fact, you don’t even need to see it. You can hear the intensity of a downhill or a super-G. When a crowd of 6,000 people holds its collective breath, you know something has gone terribly awry.
That was the case Friday in the Olympic men’s super G when Patrick Jaerbyn, a Swedish skier who lives in Edwards, Colo., caught a gate near the end of his run and went airborne. Jaerbyn, 40, was turned in the air, before slamming down hard on his back and bouncing on the icy surface before coming to stop on the side of the course. Injury details were not immediately available, although Jaerbyn could be soon moving while a team of medical staff attended to him.
The accident came immediately after the day’s fastest run, by Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal, who pushed the line between success and disaster better than anyone. While Svindal said he didn’t see Jaerbyn’s fall, he is intimately familiar with the disastrous consequences of a crash in a high-speed Alpine race.
Three seasons ago in a practice run on the Birds of Prey downhill track at Beaver Creek he came off the course’s longest jump at top speed, got disoriented, and easily flew 150 feet before coming down hard on his back, then twirling down the course. He went to the hospital with multiple facial fractures and a deep laceration in his buttocks. He didn’t return to competitive skiing for 10 months.
“He had a bad crash, but in general, Whistler, in downhill and super-G, I would say there’s a big risk of making a mistake, but there’s not a crazy risk that you’ll kill yourself or get a really bad injury,” he said. “There’s a few courses that are way tougher in that way.”
Joining Svindal on the podium was Bode Miller, who said he may have the record for most crashes in a World Cup career.
Miller, for all he has put his body through, admitted that sometimes he’s surprised that he’s still walking, at 32. He said he also knows, better than anyone, that the line between brilliant skiing and disaster is paper thin.
“I’ve had a career of almost 400 World Cup races, or whatever,” he said. “When I look back on it, I look back on it with nothing but amazement. I’ve had more disappointing races, more crashes, more blown first runs, more missed victories that everyone says I should have had, than anyone else probably on the World Cup tour that I’ve heard of. But some of those victories, some of the ones that are really important are the ones that give people chills or really inspire.”
Jaerbyn’s crash was similarly spectacular to the fall that fellow Swede Anja Paerson, one of the most accomplished athletes in her sport, took on Wednesday at the tail end of her downhill run. Paerson, knowing she was in contention for a medal, hit the gas off the final jump and soared more than 150 feet before colliding with a gate, then skidding off course. Surprisingly, she had no broken bones, just severe bruising, and the next day managed to claim bronze in the women’s combined.
To put the violent crash out of her mind, the best thing to do was “get back on the horse that threw you,” Paerson said.
“At first, I didn’t know if I would be in a hospital or a coma,” she added. “All kinds of things run through your head.”
She later added: “I was pretty scared this morning. I was scared to hit that last jump again.”
While Lindsey Vonn’s ferocious chase of U.S. teammate Julia Mancuso for gold was the lead news Wednesday, the day’s other storyline were the number of crashes on the women’s course.
Four other skiers ended up in heaps on the track after taking hard falls. On Friday, while Jaerbyn’s hard crash was the worst of the day, it wasn’t the only one.
Italy’s Peter Fill lost control during the end of his run and plowed right through a gate, then tumbled down the hill backward, ending up past the finish line.
Sore and bruised, Fill said the fall was no where near as bad as the crash he had the last time he raced in Whistler at a World Cup.
Some 16 competitors failed to finish the race, while Fill and Slovenia’s Andrej Krizaj were disqualified for missed gates.
“We go for a lot of risk, and it’s always possible,” Fill said, when asked about the mindset of skiers entering the start gate. “We are here for winning the race, and we risk a lot.”
Marco Sullivan of Squaw Valley, Calif., who crashed hard in his downhill run Monday, said the Olympics only ramp up the desire for skiers to push themselves to their absolute limit. And on a difficult course like the ones at Whistler, that pushing can result in a push back from the mountain.
“It’s the Olympics,” said Sullivan, who finished 23rd on Friday. “Everyone is shooting for that top three. If you’re fourth, it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s pushing the limits more than a normal race. Especially with the women, we saw that their course is really tough and, for a lot of them, it was too tough. They were pushing the envelope too far.”
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