February 19, 2012


QUADZILLA: Aksel Svindal has three Olympic medals, two World Cup titles, and the affections of fellow ski racer Julia Mancuso. But can he transcend the sport and become the next Hermann Maier? HAMPTON SIDES tracks down the Norwegian beast slopeside to talk about the 2007 crash that nearly ended his career and his chances of dominating the 2012 World Cup. (HAMPTON SIDES, March 2012, Outside)

Nearly all sports champions have a defining moment that exposes something profound in their character and summons a previously unseen dimension of greatness. For Svindal that moment began on a training run here at Birds of Prey almost exactly four years ago, on this same downhill course. It was November 27, 2007, a cold, overcast Tuesday. Svindal was 24 years old then, the reigning king of the World Cup ski-racing circuit. Going into the race, he was right where he wanted to be: first place in the standings for best overall World Cup skier. "I was on fire," Svindal said. "I didn't think anything could go wrong."

But something about the piste that day wasn't quite right. A dearth of storms that fall had forced Beaver Creek officials to spray down layer after layer of artificial snow. The coverage was still a little thin in places, and the course was erratic, full of unforgiving bumps and dips. The third skier out of the chute, Austrian Andreas Buder, promptly crashed, bruising his heel so severely that he would be out of commission for weeks. Several other skiers remarked on the tricky conditions. After his run, Didier Cuche, a Swiss champion hot on Svindal's trail for the overall title, expressed his reservations. "If you make an edge mistake," he said, "you're going to fly--but not in the right way."

A few moments into his run that day, Svindal dropped over the Brink, a terrifying transition roughly akin to plummeting over a waterfall. Within seconds, he accelerated from 35 mph to 60. At six feet three inches and 220 pounds, Svindal is one of the biggest skiers on the World Cup circuit, and his considerable mass helped him gather even more speed in the midsection of the course.  

By the time he flew over the Screech Owl jump, Svindal realized he was having one of the runs of his life. "I was hitting everything perfectly," he said. He had never gone faster, never skied a tighter line or felt so in tune with the flow of the mountain. It was almost surreally quiet, only the wind gushing in his ears and the occasional fan hooting somewhere beyond the safety fences.

Today, as I watch Svindal approach the flats that lead toward the course's biggest obstacle, a notorious spot called the Golden Eagle Jump, I cringe when I think of what happened here in 2007. Just before the lip on that fateful morning, Svindal hit a slight compression that threw him off balance. With all the speed he was carrying, his skis scooted out in front of him, just a little, so that when he reached the jump, he was leaning back--exactly the wrong posture. The G-forces he'd so carefully harnessed during his extraordinary run now rearranged themselves into something hideous.

"As soon as I was airborne, I knew it was going to be bad," he said. In the updraft, his skis tipped backward, throwing him into a long, terrible arc. He attempted to correct himself, trying in vain to best the laws of physics. His arms instinctively flailed in desperation--rolling down the windows, as racers say--but it was no use. As he vaulted through the air, his body kept rotating backward.

"You hope you're going to save yourself," he said. "But once you can't see the snow anymore, you don't even know where to land." His skis were now in the intensely compromising position that some coaches call bases to the sun. Svindal had given up trying to right himself and was twisting his torso sideways, to the snow, in order to protect his neck from the coming fall. 

At this point, he was traveling 72 mph--flying, but not in the right way. When he finally collided with the ground, along a stretch of course known as the Abyss, Svindal had sailed 197 feet through the air.   
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Posted by at February 19, 2012 5:11 PM

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