Dec. 14, 2001 (AP by Rob Foster)–Daron Rahlves had just been sitting with a young Swiss racer in the ski lodge, sharing a few moments of calm before the two downhillers began another daredevilish plunge at 75 mph down an icy slope.
That Swiss racer, Silvano Beltrametti, never made it to the bottom. He crashed through the safety netting at midcourse, slamming into a mattress-covered pillar with such force that his helmet split open.
U.S. skier Chad Fleischer said Beltrametti “looked like a dart going through paper.”
Beltrametti was left paralyzed from the chest down, and Rahlves _ the top U.S. men’s downhiller and a medal hopeful at the upcoming Salt Lake Olympics _ was left in shock.
“When I found out what happened, it made me sick,” Rahlves said. “Once you find out that life can change for you in one split second, you do start to think.”
The crash last weekend in a World Cup race in Val d’Isere, France, came less than six weeks after one of the top French skiers, Regine Cavagnoud, died in a collision with a German coach during training.
At a time when the world’s top downhill and slalom skiers should be perfecting their technique and showcasing their sport in the weeks leading up to the Salt Lake City Olympics, many are grieving fallen peers or those sidelined by serious injuries.
The Beltrametti and Cavagnoud crashes happened in the same year that a pair of former ski champions had terrifying accidents, one on the slopes and the other on an Alpine road.
Bill Johnson, the brash American who predicted his downhill victory in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, crashed in March while attempting a comeback and spent three weeks in a coma. Remarkably, after eight months of rehab, he got on skis again two weeks ago.
And Hermann Maier, who won two gold medals at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, desperately is trying to return to the slopes after a motorcycle accident in his native Austria in August that led to seven hours of surgery to repair a shattered leg.
Rahlves said accidents simply are part of the dangerous sport.
“That’s the rush and the reason I do it,” he said. “There are risks in this sport that we take. It’s part of the game, but it never really checks in as being such a large price to pay. It’s not going to stop me.”
Risks are endemic to alpine skiing, and the sport occasionally is marred by death.
Gernot Reinstadler, 20, died in a race in Austria in 1991, the first alpine skier killed in a World Cup event in two decades. Ulrike Maier broke her neck and died when she collided with a timing post in a World Cup downhill in Germany in 1994, two weeks before the Lillehammer Olympics.
It is the rare alpine skier who gets through a career without serious injury. Some of the world’s top skiers have a spider web of scar lines radiating from their knees.
Picabo Street, the top U.S. female downhiller, has had three major crashes and countless operations. In her autobiography “Picabo, Nothing to Hide,” she said almost every skiing champion has undergone knee surgery.
“The knees are the skiers’ Achilles’ heel. Most ski racers tear at least one knee ligament in their career,” she wrote. “A skier can have multiple knee surgeries in the course of a career. Blowing out your ACL is practically a rite of passage.”
Rahlves said the Beltrametti and Cavagnoud accidents were “pure bad luck,” but acknowledged that, “At this level we are pushing it so much that the speeds are really high.”
“The speeds these days are faster because of the equipment and the skills of the athletes,” he said. “Alpine ski racers do have a need for speed, it’s always been like that. There are those like myself that really search it out.”
U.S. women’s head coach Marjan Cernigoj says speed is not solely to blame for the danger in skiing.
“Everybody is trying to make it safer, but there are so many variables that influence the safety on the course,” Cernigoj said.
“The speeds are not getting really that much highher, but the courses are getting harder, the snow is getting harder, the equipment is less and less forgiving.”
The International Skiing Federation, or FIS, has tried to ensure safety in recent years by mandating that enough netting and padding be placed on courses. FIS has tried to slow racers by reducing jumps and making turns wider, and officials are putting dye on courses to improve visibility.
But Rahlves and some other racers don’t want too many speed bumps.
“I don’t think any more should be done. Actually, I think the FIS has gotten too cautious,” he said. “Holding back is the worst thing you can do. That usually ends up being the reason someone crashed. If I run around worried, then my life will be ruined.”