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How Olympians Cope With The Terror Of Downhill Alpine Skiing


The Winter Olympics are officially underway, and as always, one of the most anticipated events is the downhill in alpine skiing. The men's competition is this weekend. The race is raw power and speed as competitors plummet down a mountain course, sometimes going more than 90 miles an hour. NPR's Tom Goldman talked to some American racers to find out how they cope with one of the most terrifying winter sports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: 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 Stacey Cook hard.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Second down and, oh, she's - oh, my word. Oh, goodness me, that's a big hit for Cook.

GOLDMAN: Cook figures the crash, broadcast here on Eurosport, happened when she was going more than 80 miles an hour. Her skis splayed, she lost control, smashed into protective netting, and then catapulted back onto the course like a rag doll.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Oh, this sport is brutal.

GOLDMAN: That's hardly news to Stacey Cook, who this week is in Pyeongchang for her fourth Olympics. She's sore and bruised and smiling as she describes what it took to cover up a black eye.

STACEY COOK: Can you not see it? I did...

GOLDMAN: No, they did a good job.

COOK: I had - this morning, a friend sent a glam team to our hotel, so I had a professional makeup artist.

GOLDMAN: To twist an old adage, Cook can hide her black eye, but she can't run from the reality of the sport she loves and fears.

COOK: Definitely scared all the time. And I think it's a really unique women's sport with the level of danger that comes along with it.


GOLDMAN: Cook has skied since she was 4, raced since 6, and understands fear management is an essential part of getting down a treacherous downhill course. A big step for her came in 2010. At the Vancouver Olympics, she had another major crash. When she returned for the next training run, she was so afraid she cried in the start gate. She got down the mountain, but that night she had an epiphany - the fear was too much.

COOK: I changed my mindset to believe in the opportunity and not the circumstance of the past. And that switch of my mindset was really key in how I went into that race. And I look back on that moment often.

GOLDMAN: There are probably as many ways of finding the nerve as there are downhillers. For American Tommy Biesemeyer, peer pressure helps, particularly when he's standing at the start of the fearsome Hahnenkamm downhill in Austria. It's a nasty, icy plunge, Biesemeyer says, with jumps that fling a skier 150 feet through the air.

TOMMY BIESEMEYER: It's funny. Like, I don't know if I would actually go out of the start gate if all the guys that 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.

GOLDMAN: Good thing he didn't pass last month. Biesemeyer finished a career best 16th in that race.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And Biesemeyer will cross the finish line at 1:42:77.

GOLDMAN: Biesemeyer wrapped up an Olympic downhill training run this week. It's his first Winter Games, and he joins a group of the world's top speed skiers with one notable omission. Frenchman David Poisson died in a training run this season. His death jolted the alpine ski community.

TED LIGETY: Yeah. Her initial response was like, you're not skiing downhill.

GOLDMAN: That's American Ted Ligety talking about his wife and her fear. In fact, Ligety, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who's not skiing downhill this weekend, has had more success as a technical skier than a speed guy because he says he's risk-averse.

LIGETY: I haven't been as willing to be like, OK, I'm going to like, go for those two-tenths in this turn. But also, the reason that I haven't had as many injuries, I think, as a lot of guys.

GOLDMAN: Those guys who go for the two-tenths of a second, they'll be on display this weekend, risking everything and, for most, loving it because if you don't love downhill, why do it? Tom Goldman, NPR News, Pyeongchang.

(SOUNDBITE OF KLINT'S "DIAMOND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.