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Downhill Skiers Gear Up To Face Their Fears — And 'Snow Snakes' — In Winter Games

Feb 10, 2018
Originally published on February 10, 2018 9:54 pm

Updated at 11:50 p.m. ET: The men's downhill event was previously scheduled for Sunday morning at 11 a.m. local time, (9 p.m. ET Saturday) in South Korea, at the Jeongseon Alpine Center. The race has been rescheduled for Thursday due to wind conditions.

The men's downhill features the best male speed skiers in the world. The downhill is one of the most anticipated events of any Winter Games. The race is raw power and speed as competitors plummet down a mountain course, sometimes going over 90 miles per hour.

Like any great athlete, downhillers make something very tough look fairly easy. When we watch the likes of Beat Feuz of Switzerland or Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal rocket through a nearly two-minute run, we don't see the tremendous G-forces they're fighting or the tremendous leg strength needed to drive their ski edges into rock-hard snow, even ice to maintain control.

And we certainly don't see the fear.

But for many it's there.

Snow snakes

Downhillers have this term. Snow snake. It's an unseen serpent that rises from the ground and gets you.

Last weekend in Germany, the snow snake bit American racer Stacey Cook. Hard. Cook figures the crash happened when she was going more than 80 mph. Her skis splayed, she lost control, smashed into protective netting on the side of the course, and then catapulted back onto the course like a rag doll.

"It was really, really fast, but in a part of the course that stuff like that normally wouldn't happen," Cook said, "so it's kind of unexplainable."

Cook was speaking at a press event this week in Pyeongchang, where she'll compete in her fourth Olympics. The women's downhill is Feb. 21.

Yes, despite the horrific-looking crash, she will compete.

"I definitely have some extra work for myself trying to get healthy again and back in my ski boots, which will be the most painful thing," Cook said, adding, "I think once I get in my boots and feel comfortable, the racing will come naturally."

Cook was sore and bruised, but she looked fine. By design. She'd worked hard to cover up a black eye from her wipeout.

"Can you not see it?" she asked a reporter. "This morning a friend sent a glam team to our hotel so I had a professional makeup artist."

But to twist an old adage, while Stacey Cook can hide her black eye, she can't run from the reality of the sport she loves, and fears.

Managing the fear

"I'm definitely scared all the time," she says. "I think it's [downhill racing] a really unique women's sport with the level of danger that comes along with it."

Cook has skied since she was 4 years old, and raced since she was 6.

"[I've developed] an ability to handle the fear and also to realize that overcoming fear and overcoming obstacles makes for the best moments possible in life. And you learn that really easily within the sport and you're able to carry it outside the sport as well."

A big step in the evolution of her "fear management" came in 2010. At the Vancouver Winter Olympics she had another major crash. She was helicoptered off the course with a concussion. It happened in her first training run; when she returned for the next training session, she was so scared she cried in the start gate. Cook got down the mountain, but that night she had an epiphany.

"I decided the fear was too much and I didn't want to have that anymore," she says. "I changed my mindset to believe in the opportunity and not the circumstance of the past. And that switch in my mindset was really key in how I went into that race [the downhill final where she finished 11th ]. And I look back on that moment often."

Working with fear and peer pressure

There are probably as many ways to find the nerve, as there are downhillers.

Unlike Cook, fellow American speed skier Laurenne Ross can't hide the scars of her chosen sport. Battered from a lifetime of downhill injuries, 29-year-old Ross also has had to figure out her relationship to fear.

"The way I work through fear is actually to work with it," Ross says. "I try not to get out of fear or overcome fear or dominate fear. I try to embrace it and get to know it and understand why it's there. Because it's a basic human instinct that obviously has allowed our [species] to survive."

"It can be hard sometimes to live in that fear and try to embrace the fear, but I find that it's a lot more helpful than trying to repress it and have it resurface later."

For American men's downhiller Tommy Biesemeyer, peer pressure helps.

Particularly when he's standing at the start of the legendary, and fearsome, Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbuhel, Austria. It's a nasty, icy plunge with jumps that fling a skier 150 feet through the air.

"It's funny," Biesemeyer says, "like I don't know if I'd actually go out of the start gate if all the guys that I was competing against didn't go. Like if I was up there by myself, and had the opportunity to ski it, I think I would pass."

But he hasn't passed. And Biesemeyer calls his first Hahnenkamm a defining moment in his life.

"I think with something you're honestly scared of, it's really important to have a plan," he says. "In the start gate you're committed. You're doing it. And you get to the bottom and you start thinking about how you're going to go faster [next time]."

Last month Biesemeyer finished a career-best 16th in Kitzbuhel, a result that's helped fuel a run to Pyeongchang and his first ever Olympics.

A death in the family

Biesemeyer joined the world's top speed skiers this week for training runs at the Jeongseon Alpine Center. As has been the case since November of last year, one member of this elite group was missing. Frenchman David Poisson, who finished 7th in the men's downhill at the 2010 Olympics, died in a training accident in Canada.

In the finish area at Jeongseon, French skiers wore fish decals on their helmets — fish in French is "poisson."

"We think about him every time," says French downhill racer Adrien Theaux. "He's one of us."

Poisson's death, although a rare occurrence, is a reminder of the risk every downhiller takes every time they step into the start gate. And it explains the fear that's always there, not only with the racers.

"Her initial response was like, you're not skiing downhill," says American Ted Ligety. He's talking about his wife Mia when she learned about Poisson's death.

Ligety is one of America's most decorated alpine skiers. He's won two Olympic gold medals, and has raced in and won many downhills. He'll compete in the alpine combined event at these Olympics, which consists of slalom and downhill. But he won't race in this weekend's main downhill event, and says at age 33, he's not "chasing a lot of downhill starts" like he was a few years ago.

That's partly because he's had more success as a technical skier than a speed skier. He's currently ranked 8th in the world in the Giant Slalom, a race that's slower than a downhill and has more gates. But Ligety also acknowledges he's "pretty good at being risk averse," which, he says, probably has kept him from becoming one of the world's top downhillers.

"There are definitely decisions you can make on a course," says Ligety, "that y'know, not taking a risk on this one turn might cost you a tenth or two [of a second], but it might then lead you into a fence or might cost you even more time at the end if you mess it up."

"I haven't been as willing to be, like, 'OK, I'm going to go for those two tenth's [of a second] in this turn,' but also [that's] a reason why I haven't had as many injuries as a lot of guys."

Loving it through the fear

Those guys who go for the extra speed will be on display this weekend in the men's event. Risking everything. And, for most of them, loving it.

"I think the moment I step in the gate, the fear turns a little more into excitement," says Ross of the U.S. women's team. "I really look forward to that moment [when] the fear sort of turns into something else a lot of the time — excitement and anticipation."

"The feeling you get sometimes skiing speed, you can't beat it."

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