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Layden: Downhill skiing's moment of truth unlike anything else in sports

Layden: Downhill skiing's moment of truth unlike anything else in sports
Posted at 9:07 PM, Feb 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-05 07:58:56-05

The finish of the 2010 women’s Olympic downhill was cathartic for ski racer Lindsey Vonn of the United States. Four years earlier, she had been injured during training and dragged her sore body to disappointing finishes; just before the Vancouver Games, she was fighting painful shin bruises. In front of her on the morning of Feb. 17, under bluebird Canadian skies and in still air, first Elisabeth Görgl of Austria and then Julia Mancuso of the U.S. had skied brilliant runs to take the lead. Running 16th from the start house, Vonn ripped down Whistler Mountain on the edge of disaster for the run of her life.

On giant screens and scoreboards at the base of the hill, and on television screens everywhere, spectators and viewers could see Vonn’s running time, hundredths of seconds accumulating too quickly for the naked eye, full seconds adding more slowly. At regular intervals, Mancuso’s leading time would pop up beneath Vonn’s and the clock would briefly stop, comparing their times. If Vonn’s time at the interval was faster than Mansuco’s, Vonn’s time would appear against a green background; if slower, a red background. (For every racer in the field, and in every major ski race anywhere, this is standard practice). The crowd would roar with each passing interval, the equivalent of partial scores in a football game.

Vonn could see none of this. Nor can any ski racer. They are racing blind to competition, alone on the hill with the sounds of their skis chattering along the hard surface of racing snow and the roar of wind rushing past the earholes on their helmets. Paying attention to the task at hand, because, in the words of U.S. World Cup racer Breezy Johnson (who is injured and will miss the Olympic Games), "You’re skiing 80 miles an hour, so you really don’t have time to think about what has been, you need to think about what is." They do not know the 'score' of the 'game' in which they are playing. "I knew it was fast," Vonn would say later that day in 2010, "but you just never know how fast."

She screeched beneath the finish banner in a full tuck and then rose and slammed her skis sideways into the snow to stop her momentum. For an instant, she knew nothing of the outcome. "Just this tiny moment of holding your breath, while you’re still moving, getting stopped," Vonn said in an interview last week, recalling the race. The large main video screen and scoreboard were to Vonn’s left, but she looked right, at a tiny digital monitor next to the skiers’ exit from the race course. That monitor froze Vonn’s time – 1 minute, 44.19 seconds – and next to it the number "1" in parentheses, indicating that her time was the fastest, and that, even with more skiers to come, she had likely won her first Olympic gold medal.

Only then did Vonn scream and fall to the snow. Only then did she know the result.

It is among the oddest moments in sports, and largely unique to ski racing’s single-run downhill and super-G events (we will discuss) – the instant in the finish corral at the bottom of a mountainside, when a ski racer has finished a harrowing run, and doesn’t yet know his or her place until finding a scoreboard and seeing green or red, and a place number. It will play out dozens of times over the next two weeks during Alpine ski races in the mountains 60 miles from the Olympic center. 

SEE MORE: Layden: U.S. skiers to tempt fate, harness fear in Yanqing downhill

It doesn’t happen in team sports, where the scoreboard and the ebb and flow of the game are central to play and presentation. The score is always right there. The outcome unfolds in measurable, visible pieces.

It doesn’t happen in most individual sports, like track and field or swimming, where even in the shortest races – the 100m, for instance – there are other competitors in adjacent lanes who can been seen, or sensed, providing perspective that is similar to a scoreboard.

It doesn’t happen as purely in judged sports like figure skating or gymnastics, where there is a similarly enervating wait, but with the complicating factor of humans subjectively assigning scores. (There are judges in boxing, but also an opponent throwing and avoiding punches).

It doesn’t happen in the sliding sports of bobsled, luge and skeleton, where there are multiple runs to measure position. (The final run, sure, is similar to skiing’s technical events of slalom and giant slalom). 

There are degrees of difference, but there are few moments quite like the significant pause between a ski racer crossing the finish and finding his or her result on the scoreboard. Each subsequent reaction is different. There was Vonn, immediately finding a board and falling to the snow. Four years later in Sochi, when Mikaela Shiffrin won her first Olympic gold medal with a heart-stopping recovery during the second run of the slalom, she glided forward, turned slightly left, saw the board and just let her jaw drop ever so slightly, almost in shock.

Johnson can relate to that moment. "Okay, first of all, get yourself stopped up," she says, "because it’s not over until you’re stopped. And then I like to give myself a moment to decide: 'Did I ski my best? Or did I leave something on the table?' And then I look at the board."

Then there is the other side of that feeling. "I am way too wired of a person to just wait before looking," says NBC analyst and two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety. "I mean, yeah, as soon as I crossed the finish line, even before I got myself stopped, I was looking right to the board. There was no basking in the skiing; it was straight to finding out how slow or fast I was."

Four-time U.S. Olympic downhiller Marco Sullivan says, "At some venues, there would be a spot where they would just have a green light or red light. Green if you went into the lead, red if you didn’t. The one World Cup race I won," – a downhill in Chamonix, France in 2008 – "I saw green before I saw anything else, so I just gave little fist pump, because I was excited about my run, anyway. For me, it was just let out a sigh of relief that I made it through the finish line and then look for that color or my time."

This raises another, broader point: Downhill racers are competing at speeds exceeding 90 miles an hour for men, and only marginally slower for women. Even at such harrowing speeds, they are able to calculate whether they are skiing well. "You know if you’re skiing well, and fast," says Vonn. But beyond that, it gets challenging in a sport where the difference between first place and 10th place can be as little as half a second. "You can tell if you’re carrying speed," says U.S. Olympic downhill racer Bryce Bennett, who will compete in the downhill (Saturday night on NBC at 10 p.m. ET). "But you’re just gathering information, you’re not gauging your time to within hundredths or tenths of a second. I don’t think that’s possible.”

SEE MORE: Bryce Bennett breaks down 'The Rock' downhill course

Ligety says, "You have a sense, based on years and years of racing and training, whether this is good skiing or bad skiing. But there are also course or weather conditions that are so horrible or exceptionally difficult that even good skiing feels like bad skiing for the best skiers in the world."

"And the other thing that’s weird," says Ligety, "in other sports you have rivals. But in skiing, all you can do is ski your race. You have no way of inflicting your will on their performance or their skiing."

Even with the most refined sensory connection possible to their sport, skiers can misjudge their performances. Four years ago in PyeongChang, Vonn’s fourth and final Olympics, she felt that her run in the downhill was good enough to overtake leader Sofia Goggia of Italy. Instead, she finished .47 seconds behind Goggia. "I thought I was fast enough to win the race," says Vonn. "It was really disappointing." (Ragnhild Mowinckel of Norway came down later and split Goggia and Vonn, taking the silver medal and dropping Vonn to the bronze).

Likewise, Ligety recalls racing the slalom portion of the combined event at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, the event in which he had won his first gold medal, eight years earlier. His slalom time was just seventh-best, leaving him far out of the medals. "I didn’t think I had a spectacular run," says Ligety, "But I was shocked at how bad it was."

In the course of reporting this story, I asked skiers if they would like an interval clock on the hill, if they could adapt their racing, knowing they were ahead or behind. This is strictly a thought exercise, because such a system would be unfair to the first skier down the course, who would have no guidelines. It might also be impractical. "At those speeds, it would have to be something really simple," says Vonn. "Somebody raising a red flag or a green flag, or a big red or green light somewhere very visible."

Johnson says, "The coolest thing about ski racing is you are in this moment where your body and your muscles are firing 100% and you’re doing incredibly athletic things and your brain is also working 100%. You just have to keep executing. That all there is."

Sullivan recalls a story from his Lake Tahoe friend and four-time Olympian Daron Rahlves, one of only two Americans to win the Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbuhel, Austria. "Daron told me when he won in Kitzbuhel, there was a place about halfway down, where there are spectators and a big speaker and the announcer is really loud and Daron knew he was having a good run because the announcer was so excited and that motivated him to keep rolling." Sullivan laughed. "But, you know, that’s pretty rare."

Instead, red or green await at the bottom. The finish line pause lives on. A kernel of mystery endures.