Monday, February 15, 2010

Downhill Racer

Any resemblance between what they do and what the rest of the world attempts is in name only. While we 'ski', what these world class downhill racers do is move at speeds reaching up to 80 miles per hour (for the women, and even greater for the men), pushing the limits of their strength, their willpower and the mountain, in a 2 minute chase for glory. Sometimes they win, sometimes the mountain claims victory.

Lindsey Vonn, and her famous shin, will be tested over the coming days, by her competitors, and by her will to overcome the pain that will surely remind her, at each turn, of its presence. But pain is not a stranger to this downhill racer, nor to any who live on the edge. In 2003 she missed a month of competition after suffering a hip injury in a crash. During training for the 2006 Olympics in Turin, she had a frightening fall, injuring her hip and back and being airlifted to local hospital. 2 days later she raced, and raced well, finishing 8th in the downhill. For the rest of that season she wore a special splint and won 4 World Cup races. In 2007, a severely sprained knee sidelined her. In 2008, she learned that even victory can be painful, as she severed a tendon in her thumb on a broken champagne bottle while celebrating a World Cup victory. Lindsey raced thereafter with a special splint. After a World Cup crash in 2009, she was compelled to use a brace on her injured arm.

How do these racers deal with the knowledge of the inherent dangers in the sport? In an interview with Charles Robinson for Yahoo Sports, Picabo Street, one of America's all time great ski racers, remembers visiting with Vonn in the hospital in Turin. "You're going to crash", Street told Vonn. "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 out of control, you have to go past the line every now and again".

Some athletes even find the crash and burn to be a positive learning experience. In the same article in Yahoo sports, Andrew Weibrecht, a member of the men's downhill team for the 2010 Olympics, says "You can gain a lot of information from crashing....Some guys don't watch their crashes but I love watching mine. 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...It helps to make equipment changes and things like that. I think I have actually had stronger results from things that I've figured out from the crashes."

It certainly takes a unique mindset to be able to find a positive in hurtling out of control at enormous speeds, down a slope meant to test the physical and mental limits of the best skiers in the world. But for those who come out of the experience and move on to greatness, there is almost a mythical quality to them. The "Herminator", Hermann Maier, in the downhill race in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, found himself airborne, and upside down. When he landed, he cart- wheeled 6 times, and crashed through 2 safety nets, before his body finally came to rest. Days later, Maier was competing again and won 2 gold metals in the Olympic games. Of this, are legends born.

Vonn's injury to her shin, while less spectacular in how it occurred, may be as compelling as Maier's in its psychological impact. If she were somehow able to battle through the pain to reach the medal stand once, and maybe even more, her place in the pantheon of American ski legends would be secured. Over the next several days, this will play itself out before an audience of 3 billion people worldwide. It should be fascinating, and riveting. It is what these games, and downhill racing, is all about.

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