Monday, December 23, 2013

Downhill (A Tale of Fiction)

Phillip Killy Walters knew even before he hit the ground that he was in serious trouble.

He had been skiing at two years old,  racing at five and had not stopped since. Eighteen years later, his body having been broken and put back together far too often, the sensation in the moment before impact was a familiar one. He later recalled that his mind wandered for the tiniest sliver of time wondering what would be the nature of this latest injury.

Walters grew up in the shadow of his home mountain in Colorado. He had been born for this sport. His parents named their only child after Phil Mahre and Jean Claude Killy, their two favorite World Cup champions. William and Sarah Walters had married and  immediately moved west to follow their passion for skiing. Their life would not be dictated by the accident of their birthplace.

If there was a time before skiing he could not remember it. Virtually each recorded image of a young Phillip involved some aspect of this activity. He knew every inch of every trail he stared at from his bedroom window. Everything else that happened to him was just white noise.  Skiing was not merely a part of his existence, it was his reason for being. It was in every fiber of his body, in every step that he took. The mountain was where he was at peace, where it all made sense. He needed it as much as the oxygen he breathed.
Success had been an almost constant companion. There had been little to suggest  that anyone, anywhere was better. The ribbons, the trophies, the accolades had come as freely as the snow that fell in volumes from the sky. As one season blended into the next, the pretenders came and went. The only constant foe was injury.

Walters had been airlifted off a mountain at age 18. The list of disasters, small and large, grew longer with each passing year. He lost most of two seasons and  a smaller part of  another. To all elite skiers, this was, if not an expected companion, one that was a contemplated asterisk necessary to reach greatness.  He understood pain and the terrible torture and drudgery of rehab. None of that scared him.

It was the lack of agony that frightened him as he lay on the snow. There was no discomfort anywhere, and he understood at once what that meant. He had seen this before, and even worse. But, even in that instant when the one thing he could hear was the sound of his own breathing,  he told himself he was only paralyzed momentarily.

Three years have passed since that day. Three years that filled a lifetime, no ten lifetimes, in his mind. And today,  Phillip Killy Walters was standing at the top of another race course, waiting for the seconds to tick off until he could hurtle his body downhill.

He knew the story of Kevin Pearce, knew the man himself. He understood the unquenchable drive to be able to define oneself in the only way that mattered. Even in Pearce's brain damaged state, Walters believed there was clarity. He read of Jermaine Taylor who had been beaten senseless yet reentered the ring to take punishment that would surely banish him to a future existence of diminished capacity. He listened to the former NFL players who said they would do it all over again even as they were showing the first terrible signs of CTE..
His was the story that was now being debated in every corner of every office. It had taken a court order for the sanctioning body to permit him to compete. The US Team did not welcome him back. There was only one person willing to work with him, to train him for this moment. His father. For this choice, William Walters had been demonized by the press,  the villain in a human play that had all the makings of a tragedy in waiting.

The natural and overwhelming instinct of a parent is to act as protector for those one has brought into this world. Voluntarily to permit harm to exist, and even to welcome its potential into your home, would seem an unthinkable act, a crime of the worst sort. Yet that was what was occurring while the world watched and weighed in..

When asked about the return of a former star to the circuit, fellow competitors of Walters were hesitant to speak. Did they believe he was a deeply troubled individual who could not come to grips with the reality of what he was doing, or would they have done exactly the same in his position? For so many of them, the line between the reality of who they were at the top of the mountain and in the rest of their world had long ago blurred, if not disappeared. It was almost impossible now to recreate that division.

Phillip Killy Walters was one of the last out of the starting gate. The deep grooves in the turns carved by those who came before would not make the task any simpler. The snow that was falling  in swirling torrents would create but another obstacle. Anything and everything was informing him of the mistake that was about to play out in front of all those eyes, many secretly anticipating, even looking for disaster.

In the days after the paralysis three years ago, before the first sensation appeared in his body, before the doctors told him there was a chance he would someday walk again, before there was anything to hope for, he had a long conversation with himself.  He had been resolute that day, and every day since that he would not question the choices that had put him where he lay.  Like his parents a generation before, he had been in control of his fate. This had been a matter of his choosing, and his alone. No one would dictate how and where the journey took him.

The course flashed through his mind as he readied to push off. Each twist and turn raced through his body and he envisioned himself at the bottom of the hill, home where he belonged. He said a silent thank you to his father and prayed he knew how much he loved  him and appreciated that he understood this was the only  life he ever wanted, that ever mattered.. In the next instant Phillip Killy Walters was off, chasing his destiny.

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