Growing Pains - Ski Mag

Growing Pains

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Twenty-two-year-old Caroline Lalive blisters the top section of the women's 2002 Olympic downhill. She's perfectly balanced on her skis and very much in contention. Suddenly, she falters in the left turn nicknamed "G-force." Double-teamed by her own speed and centrifugal force, Lalive collapses and remains on her back for several seconds. In a shocking instant, one of America's top medal contenders is out of the race. "Squashed," as NBC's commentator puts it. Not strong enough to hold the turn.

Two days later Lalive, once considered a virtual "lock" for a medal in the alpine combined (where the combined times of a downhill run and two slalom runs determine the winner), disappoints again. High winds force organizers to hold the two slalom runs before the downhill-a rare occurrence, one she has never experienced before.

Before the first run she warns herself not to go all-out, but once she kicks out of the start, her conservative game plan goes out the window. Silence spreads through the spectators as Lalive leans in, skids out, falls and has to hike back up the hill to make the gates she missed. She's 17 seconds behind the leader after the first run, in an event in which a second or two is considered insurmountable.

NBC's cameras have been trained on Caroline's mother, Fran, a fashionably dressed, petite and attractive woman from Steamboat Springs, Colo. With the network's live microphone pinned to her jacket, she consoles her daughter in the finish area, assuring her she can make up the time, trying, as Caroline says later, "to blow a little sunshine on me." Lalive, unaware of the mic, turns on her mother incredulously. "Seventeen seconds, Mom?" she asks. She withdraws from the combined, hopelessly beaten.

NBC criticizes her attitude, suggesting she's a spoiled brat. Meanwhile, U.S. racer Lindsey Kildow, 17, goes on to finish sixth-one of the few Olympic bright spots for the American women. It's déjà  vu for Lalive, who, at 18, finished seventh in the '98 Olympic combined.

Just seven seconds into the subsequent super G, Lalive capsizes onto her right hip and skids into the retaining fences. Out again. NBC's commentator, Christin Cooper, herself an Olympic silver medalist, expresses her own frustration, as well as that of many American ski racing fans accustomed to seeing U.S. women come through to medal in major events. She labels Lalive a "head case."

Following her poor performance in the combined, downhill and super G, Ski Team officials pull Lalive from the women's slalom, her last opportunity for redemption. After dedicating six years on the team to training for all five events, Lalive is crushed by the decision and goes into seclusion. First she heads to Steamboat, Colo., then to Europe-home in both cases.

Caroline Lalive's girl-next-door looks, blond hair, bright eyes and striking smile make her a photographer's dream. Her cell phone rings often. She giggles easily, laughs suddenly, gestures expansively when she talks. She is stingy with tears of self-pity. Her shoulders are broad, as one would expect of such a gifted, elite athlete-and they carry plenty of weight. Her overall record is promising-she has 10 top-15 World Cup finishes and the seventh-place finish at the '98 Olympics-but the big wins elude her.

Lalive is positive, optimistic, upbeat and wise beyond her years. She is, by her own admission, a "people-pleaser," one who doesn't fight the system. She talks passionately about character, spirituality, friends, sponsors, coaches and fans who have supported her and, about her family being her "foundation."

"She's the same person, whether the camera's on or off," says NBC's Don Swartz, who produced a pre-Olympic profile on Lalive. John Meyer, who edits Lalive's column about her skiing career for The Denver Post, says, "Sometimes I can't believe I'm talking to a 22-year-old."

You may have seen Lalive without realizing it. There's the famous Chevrolet ike a Rock" TV commercial. It's called "Dad," though viewers are never told that. A young girl and her father unload their ski gear from a Chevy Suburban. They walk toward a ski hill, and she struggles with her skis. He offers help, but she insists, "I can do it."

Next we see the father, driving a later-model SUV, with an older version of his daughter. They are returning from a ski race, and she is crying. He consoles her, saying gently, "Hey, you just caught an edge." Finally, we see today's Chevy truck and Dad in the finish area. The grown-up daughter races like a dream, crosses the finish line and flashes him a killer victory smile.

It is, supposedly, a thumbnail of Caroline Lalive's life. But in real life the "rock" is not the truck, not the Dad, but Lalive herself. What you don't see in the commercial-in fact it's something she didn't even admit to her coaches until recently-is the bitter divorce of her parents just before the Games. The strain of holding a painful secret about the split of her "foundation," along with shouldering the expectations of a Winter Olympics on home soil, is bound to affect even the toughest of athletes-especially one barely in her 20s.

Study the Caroline Lalive story closely and you discover odd twists. Fran, her mother, grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., in a modest Irish-Catholic family of 12. Francois, her Dad, is Swiss, and was a talented regional club racer. He was an affluent city boy from Geneva. The two first met in Europe when both were marooned by the same phony airline scam that sold them bogus tickets.

Francois later moved to the States, tried his hand on the U.S. Pro Tour, taught skiing in California at Mammoth, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, and eventually made his way to Palo Alto and back into Fran's life.

Francois and Fran started Lalive skiing on a bunny hill in Switzerland at age 2 during a vacation. "All she wanted to do was go straight and bomb into the fences," Francois recalls. "She'd scream, 'Again, Daddy. Again!'"

"He let me run into fences," Caroline says. "That set the stage for my character and my career."

As a tot, Lalive careened down the paved Alpine Meadows access road on her hot pink Big Wheel-to the alarm of some neighbors. "They might have been accused of bad parenting," laughs Caroline, who recently crashed on a mountain bike in Moab, Utah, broke her wrist, then had it X-rayed by a veterinarian to avoid publicity and the expense of an emergency room visit.

Caroline began racing at age 6 at Squaw Valley. From the start she showed natural speed and "reckless abandon," as she describes it. "I'm normally wild and aggressive," she admits. "Nobody ever needed to tell me to go for it."

What she remembers most from her childhood is her friendship and rivalry with current teammate Jonna Mendes of nearby Heavenly. "One day I wanted to beat Jonna so bad, I tucked at the end of the race and missed the last gate (an automatic disqualification).

I said, 'Dad, do you think anybody saw?' He said, 'Yes, but even if they didn't, you'd have to tell somebody.'"

By age 10, she stopped listening to her father when he tried to coach her. "I thought I was smarter than he was," she says. Nonetheless, she took great pride in her dual Swiss-American citizenship. In 1988 she watched the Calgary Winter Olympics on TV and was inspired by Swiss champion Pirmin Zurbriggen, who, like her, skied on Kastle skis. After his downhill victory she went to her room and held a pretend interview-complete with Swiss accent.

The family stayed in Lake Tahoe, visiting Switzerland often, until Caroline was 13. But then Francois experienced a "midlife crisis" and decided he wanted to own a pear orchard in Oregon, near Hood River. They moved to a farming community of 300 people, where "nobody was athletic."

For three years, Fran commuted 120 miles each day to Mt. Hood so Caroline could ski. When it rained, Caroline trained in a yellow agricultural pesticide suit from her father's orchard.

In the end, Oregon didn't work out, and the family relocated again to Steamboat Springs, where both the ski program and community suited them. Her sister, Isabelle, could pursue her interest in snowboarding; her brother, John Philippe, hockey.

Lalive attended the Lowell Whiteman School in Steamboat, a pricey prep school. Though not a true ski academy like those in the East, Whiteman boasts several Olympic alums. Winter athletes are permitted to drop two courses in order to train and ski.

Lalive was a top student, but after graduation she turned down a full scholarship to Brown University in Rhode Island. She downplays this honor, suggesting the Ivy League school was desperate for female athletes to fulfill Title IX quotas.

Instead, at age 16, she went after a spot on the U.S. Ski Team. She struggled, and was heartbroken when Mendes and Sarah Schleper were invited to race in Europe-but not her. However, she did well enough at the 1996 U.S. Alpine Championships in Sugarloaf, Maine, to earn a spot on the C Team alongside her two rivals.

Lalive's prodigious talent didn't fully bloom until after she was established on the team. She was not only good, she was good at everything. She has earned World Cup points in five disciplines: slalom, giant slalom, super G, downhill and alpine combined, and has the raw talent to be the best all-around female racer in the world-the Bo Jackson of skiing.

Three days before the 1998 Nagano Games, she learned she had made the Olympic Team. "Japan was incredible for me," she says. "At 18, I didn't have a clue. I had an open mind and no expectations. The stage was set for me to gain experience. It was pure games for me.

I didn't even get to stay with the team or go to opening or closing ceremonies. I flew in, competed, flew out again to Europe right away."

After her perfromance in the combined, she was suddenly hailed as America's next great champion and Picabo Street's promising successor.

Of NBC's-and especially Christin Cooper's- harsh on-air treatment of her during the 2002 Games, Lalive offers little except to say, "I was emotionally defeated. To have a fellow athlete (like Cooper) kick me when I was down was very, very hard."

Instead, she prefers the positive. "There was an incredible outpouring of support from all corners of the world," says Lalive. "For two-and-a-half days I was convinced I should quit skiing, but the beautiful support warmed my spirit."

Support is warranted. For the past five years, Caroline Lalive has been a very real threat to win any World Cup race on any given day. In Europe, where alpine skiers enjoy far more prestige than in the States, she's known as the Swiss Miss, and appreciated not only for her command of French, but for her go-for-it attitude.

Within the team, there has been fear that Lalive was spread too thinly. "Racing five events takes a lot of energy," says former women's coach Georg Capaul, "and there's always the concern she'll run out of juice chasing all those disciplines."

Lalive agrees, but only partially. "At times the schedule is really taxing physically, mentally and emotionally. But I like the variety and the chance to be strong in many areas. If I screw up in one event, I can make it up elsewhere."

In the Olympic postmortem, American aficionados bid farewell to Picabo Street, who retired, dissed and all but dismissed Lalive, and after Lindsey Kildow's surprise showing in the combined, hailed the 17-year-old as the next great hope-much as they did a younger Lalive in Nagano four years earlier.

It is better perhaps not to compare Lalive and Kildow, but to golden-boy Bode Miller, who until his breakthrough year in 2002, when he won four World Cup races and two Olympic medals, crashed far more often than not.

"Bode rarely finished," Lalive says. "He always had speed, and he always had trouble dialing that back. Once he did, he started to gain confidence. When you lose confidence, you're playing with fire. chard.

In the end, Oregon didn't work out, and the family relocated again to Steamboat Springs, where both the ski program and community suited them. Her sister, Isabelle, could pursue her interest in snowboarding; her brother, John Philippe, hockey.

Lalive attended the Lowell Whiteman School in Steamboat, a pricey prep school. Though not a true ski academy like those in the East, Whiteman boasts several Olympic alums. Winter athletes are permitted to drop two courses in order to train and ski.

Lalive was a top student, but after graduation she turned down a full scholarship to Brown University in Rhode Island. She downplays this honor, suggesting the Ivy League school was desperate for female athletes to fulfill Title IX quotas.

Instead, at age 16, she went after a spot on the U.S. Ski Team. She struggled, and was heartbroken when Mendes and Sarah Schleper were invited to race in Europe-but not her. However, she did well enough at the 1996 U.S. Alpine Championships in Sugarloaf, Maine, to earn a spot on the C Team alongside her two rivals.

Lalive's prodigious talent didn't fully bloom until after she was established on the team. She was not only good, she was good at everything. She has earned World Cup points in five disciplines: slalom, giant slalom, super G, downhill and alpine combined, and has the raw talent to be the best all-around female racer in the world-the Bo Jackson of skiing.

Three days before the 1998 Nagano Games, she learned she had made the Olympic Team. "Japan was incredible for me," she says. "At 18, I didn't have a clue. I had an open mind and no expectations. The stage was set for me to gain experience. It was pure games for me.

I didn't even get to stay with the team or go to opening or closing ceremonies. I flew in, competed, flew out again to Europe right away."

After her perfromance in the combined, she was suddenly hailed as America's next great champion and Picabo Street's promising successor.

Of NBC's-and especially Christin Cooper's- harsh on-air treatment of her during the 2002 Games, Lalive offers little except to say, "I was emotionally defeated. To have a fellow athlete (like Cooper) kick me when I was down was very, very hard."

Instead, she prefers the positive. "There was an incredible outpouring of support from all corners of the world," says Lalive. "For two-and-a-half days I was convinced I should quit skiing, but the beautiful support warmed my spirit."

Support is warranted. For the past five years, Caroline Lalive has been a very real threat to win any World Cup race on any given day. In Europe, where alpine skiers enjoy far more prestige than in the States, she's known as the Swiss Miss, and appreciated not only for her command of French, but for her go-for-it attitude.

Within the team, there has been fear that Lalive was spread too thinly. "Racing five events takes a lot of energy," says former women's coach Georg Capaul, "and there's always the concern she'll run out of juice chasing all those disciplines."

Lalive agrees, but only partially. "At times the schedule is really taxing physically, mentally and emotionally. But I like the variety and the chance to be strong in many areas. If I screw up in one event, I can make it up elsewhere."

In the Olympic postmortem, American aficionados bid farewell to Picabo Street, who retired, dissed and all but dismissed Lalive, and after Lindsey Kildow's surprise showing in the combined, hailed the 17-year-old as the next great hope-much as they did a younger Lalive in Nagano four years earlier.

It is better perhaps not to compare Lalive and Kildow, but to golden-boy Bode Miller, who until his breakthrough year in 2002, when he won four World Cup races and two Olympic medals, crashed far more often than not.

"Bode rarely finished," Lalive says. "He always had speed, and he always had trouble dialing that back. Once he did, he started to gain confidence. When you lose confidence, you're playing with fire. It all boils down to knowing what's too much and what's not enough."

Miller recognizes a certain kinship with Lalive. "Everybody says she choked," he says. "She didn't choke: She was going for it. She always goes for it. She's very talented. She knows how to ride an edge and she knows how to go fast. She skis to win. What happened to her (at the Olympics) could have happened to me."

Lalive, flattered by Miller's remarks, responds, "It's not fair to say I choked. For me, the Olympics were about pilot error. I fell, and that was it. People who know little about skiing have great hopes for U.S. athletes in the Olympics. There was a big, big buildup to Salt Lake. For two years I said to myself, 'They're expecting me to medal.' I came into 2002 with a sense of dread. I fought demons constantly. That's why I fell apart."

After they pulled her out of the Olympic slalom, she called her coaches, said she would quit, that she'd "lost her love for the sport." She got on a plane and escaped to Europe, where she feels both acceptance and affection.

Just two days later, riding a T-bar on a crisp bright morning, she thought, "There's no way I can walk away from this. Get off the pity potty, Caroline. Enough depression."

It might have been a turning point. "It sounds like a cliché," she says, "but I believe simplicity is what works for me. I looked around at the European skiing heritage, and I started thinking that European skiers are cultivated simply. They're relaxed and therefore have a better feel for the snow. Feel for the snow is the most important thing, and I've got to get that back."

She returned to Lake Tahoe for the U.S. nationals and kicked butt: second in both the GS and slalom, first in super G and the combined. She went back to Europe and the World Cup with a vengeance. At the World Cup Final downhill in Altenmarkt, Austria, Lalive started last in the field, then shocked the crowd by winning the first two intermediate times and finishing second to world champion Michaela Dorfmeister by .19 seconds-despite having to deal with a deteriorating course. "That finish was pivotal," she says. "It affirmed what I'm now doing is right."

What Lalive seems to be doing now is growing up-and becoming her own "foundation." She's recognized that bearing the burden of family baggage has affected the mental toughness so crucial to a world-class athlete. The split of her parents blindsided her, and in fact, she has no "tight connection" with siblings Izzy and JP, whose laidback lives in Steamboat contrast so sharply with her own intense, tightly regimented schedule.

However, Lalive has found a different connection in her relationship with her boyfriend, Croatian World Cup slalom champion Ivica Kostelic. Though she doesn't recall it, he saw her first when they were together at a junior championship in Toppolino, Italy, when they were both 14. For years his younger sister, Janica, the multi-medaled sensation of Salt Lake, delivered odd messages such as, "My brother sends you greetings."

They officially met at the Steadman-Hawkins clinic in Vail in 1999 while rehabbing, and at Christmas in 2001 he confessed his long-standing crush on her. Last New Year's Eve, in Salzburg, he wooed her and won her heart. But their time together since, in London and Croatia, has been kept private.

Lalive plans to stay in ski racing for a long time, and is already preparing for the Torino Olympics in 2006. But her approach will be different, simpler, less distracted.

"They say that growth is really painful. Maybe these last two years have been my growing pains," she says. "Great athletes are like masterpieces: They are not created overnight."

Jesse Hunt, newly appointed alpine program director for the U.S. Ski Team, recognizes Lalive's potential for world domination-if she's handled properly.

"Masterpieces are not created in a day," Hunt agrees. "But any artist needs to lay down basic colors to start the picture. She may have to narrow her focuss (by concentrating on fewer events), then broaden it again."

"Skiing is a short window in life," Lalive says. "I'm a home girl. Skiing doesn't define who I am. People only know me for the minute and a half I go left and right-or fall. I have killer instinct, but I'm still a kid trying to figure things out. Someday I'm not going to be wearing a tight little suit crashing into fences. I'm going to have a baby on one hip and a spatula of chocolate in my hand."

Someday Lalive may pass down her love of skiing to her children, just as her parents did. And as she grows up and becomes more self-reliant, that "killer instinct" may yet lead her to an Olympic podium.

Follow Caroline Lalive's 2003 season on skimag.com.all boils down to knowing what's too much and what's not enough."

Miller recognizes a certain kinship with Lalive. "Everybody says she choked," he says. "She didn't choke: She was going for it. She always goes for it. She's very talented. She knows how to ride an edge and she knows how to go fast. She skis to win. What happened to her (at the Olympics) could have happened to me."

Lalive, flattered by Miller's remarks, responds, "It's not fair to say I choked. For me, the Olympics were about pilot error. I fell, and that was it. People who know little about skiing have great hopes for U.S. athletes in the Olympics. There was a big, big buildup to Salt Lake. For two years I said to myself, 'They're expecting me to medal.' I came into 2002 with a sense of dread. I fought demons constantly. That's why I fell apart."

After they pulled her out of the Olympic slalom, she called her coaches, said she would quit, that she'd "lost her love for the sport." She got on a plane and escaped to Europe, where she feels both acceptance and affection.

Just two days later, riding a T-bar on a crisp bright morning, she thought, "There's no way I can walk away from this. Get off the pity potty, Caroline. Enough depression."

It might have been a turning point. "It sounds like a cliché," she says, "but I believe simplicity is what works for me. I looked around at the European skiing heritage, and I started thinking that European skiers are cultivated simply. They're relaxed and therefore have a better feel for the snow. Feel for the snow is the most important thing, and I've got to get that back."

She returned to Lake Tahoe for the U.S. nationals and kicked butt: second in both the GS and slalom, first in super G and the combined. She went back to Europe and the World Cup with a vengeance. At the World Cup Final downhill in Altenmarkt, Austria, Lalive started last in the field, then shocked the crowd by winning the first two intermediate times and finishing second to world champion Michaela Dorfmeister by .19 seconds-despite having to deal with a deteriorating course. "That finish was pivotal," she says. "It affirmed what I'm now doing is right."

What Lalive seems to be doing now is growing up-and becoming her own "foundation." She's recognized that bearing the burden of family baggage has affected the mental toughness so crucial to a world-class athlete. The split of her parents blindsided her, and in fact, she has no "tight connection" with siblings Izzy and JP, whose laidback lives in Steamboat contrast so sharply with her own intense, tightly regimented schedule.

However, Lalive has found a different connection in her relationship with her boyfriend, Croatian World Cup slalom champion Ivica Kostelic. Though she doesn't recall it, he saw her first when they were together at a junior championship in Toppolino, Italy, when they were both 14. For years his younger sister, Janica, the multi-medaled sensation of Salt Lake, delivered odd messages such as, "My brother sends you greetings."

They officially met at the Steadman-Hawkins clinic in Vail in 1999 while rehabbing, and at Christmas in 2001 he confessed his long-standing crush on her. Last New Year's Eve, in Salzburg, he wooed her and won her heart. But their time together since, in London and Croatia, has been kept private.

Lalive plans to stay in ski racing for a long time, and is already preparing for the Torino Olympics in 2006. But her approach will be different, simpler, less distracted.

"They say that growth is really painful. Maybe these last two years have been my growing pains," she says. "Great athletes are like masterpieces: They are not created overnight."

Jesse Hunt, newly appointed alpine program director for the U.S. Ski Team, recognizes Lalive's potential for world domination-if she's handled properly.

"Masterpieces are not created in a day," Hunt agrees. "But any artist needs to lay down basic colors to start the picture. She may have to narrow her focus (by concentrating on fewer events), then broaden it again."

"Skiing is a short window in life," Lalive says. "I'm a home girl. Skiing doesn't define who I am. People only know me for the minute and a half I go left and right-or fall. I have killer instinct, but I'm still a kid trying to figure things out. Someday I'm not going to be wearing a tight little suit crashing into fences. I'm going to have a baby on one hip and a spatula of chocolate in my hand."

Someday Lalive may pass down her love of skiing to her children, just as her parents did. And as she grows up and becomes more self-reliant, that "killer instinct" may yet lead her to an Olympic podium.

Follow Caroline Lalive's 2003 season on skimag.com.er focus (by concentrating on fewer events), then broaden it again."

"Skiing is a short window in life," Lalive says. "I'm a home girl. Skiing doesn't define who I am. People only know me for the minute and a half I go left and right-or fall. I have killer instinct, but I'm still a kid trying to figure things out. Someday I'm not going to be wearing a tight little suit crashing into fences. I'm going to have a baby on one hip and a spatula of chocolate in my hand."

Someday Lalive may pass down her love of skiing to her children, just as her parents did. And as she grows up and becomes more self-reliant, that "killer instinct" may yet lead her to an Olympic podium.

Follow Caroline Lalive's 2003 season on skimag.com.

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