We Tried It: The Downhill

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Fear and sideslipping on the steeps of Snowbasin.

When I'm asked to test-drive the Olympic downhill course, I have just finished a speedy day at Snowbird and am already jacked up.

"Yes, yes, yes!" I scream into the phone. A vision comes: I am going to be so fast that the U.S. Ski Team will feel compelled to ask me to race for them in February. But a friend is with me, and he has a warning: "It's wilder than you think."

I am not deterred. My impression of downhill racing is pretty straightforward: You simply go for it, careening full speed top-to-bottom -- which I've done many times at ski resorts and on steep, powdery Alaskan mountains. Hey, I've done front flips off 30-foot cliffs. How much harder can it be?

I borrow a pair of old 215 Atomic downhill boards (even though they now race on much shorter skis) and journey to Snowbasin a total of three times: during the men's World Cup, the Women's Nor-Am, and the masters. I receive special permission to get on the course at the men's World Cup, and the organizers there have an idea: "Why don't you forerun?" they suggest. So I ride to the top, sideslip to the bottom, and come back with my response: "Are you smoking crack?"

The run begins with an immediate 50-degree drop-off, and the slope remains so off-angle and disorienting all the way to the bottom that it reminds me of one of those dizzying house-of-mystery attractions I once visited. Throw in speeds of 70-80 miles per hour, three 150-foot airs, the fact that I've never been around a gate in my life and that I've never been on either the course or a pair of 215's (I weigh 135 pounds) -- plus the entire ski industry is watching -- and there is simply no way. At least not without five years of training and a couple cans of Red Bull.

The Nor-Am isn't any better. Again asked to forerun, I become convinced that the organizers are trying to kill me. I beg for some coaching or a chance to ski the course in sections. Anything! Without training, I figure it would be suicide to run the damn thing. I become so frazzled, so apprehensive, so filled with fear at the prospect of running this course that when my last opportunity disappears (the masters race is cancelled), I feel like someone has taken a gun away from my head. There is simply nothing I've done as a skier to prepare me for going straight down tilted ice. The downhill is on another planet compared to what most people see as skiing.

I do ski on the Atomics, finally, during a masters GS race. They have the sensitivity of a pair of two-by-fours. I scream the whole way down.

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