Standing in the start gate of the most treacherous race course in the world in Kitzbühel, Austria, it all starts to make sense.
I started skiing for the same reason many do. It was something my family did on the weekends. We would make the Friday journey after a long week of school, most likely in a snow storm, or some other kind of terrible weather. Knowing the outcome would justify the effort.
Skiing meant enjoying the freedom of the mountain, the time spent with friends playing in the snow. Skiing multiple laps in the terrain park, back country, gladed runs, groomers, and making sure you hit every jump you could find. You would challenge your friends, one-up them, get into trouble, and learn how to escape.
Along the way, you were building an understanding of the power the mountain holds. Understanding that you are only a visitor. Knowing the humbling reality that the mountain can take your health, your well-being, and even your life. Teaching your soul to be cautious, while throwing caution to the wind. Learning to not just say “the hell with it”, “droppin’ in”, or “full send”, but to truly live those words, and that moment. You love the fact that you and so many others grew up on the mountain. When travelling, you meet the same people, who have had the same experience on their mountain. It’s an amazing culture and brotherhood, or sisterhood. And after a day of cruising the mountain and finding new limits, everyone retreats to the watering hole, to live their tales again.
So many people get injured, or worse, lose their lives in the mountains each year, but it is for the love of each other, and our mountain that we mourn, we learn, we better our approach, we simplify our methods. We prepare, and move the needle forward. We live in a sport that very rarely looks in the rearview mirror. On every powder day, bluebird day, weekend, or weekday, it’s time to tighten the boots, strap on the board, click into skis, and be better than ever before.
So now, like I mentioned, standing at the summit of the treacherous track in Kitzbühel, it all started to make sense.
My first time in Kitzbühel I was 22. There had been bad weather the three days before training and we had not been able to load the mountain for skiing. The first training run was moved up to 10 am, which meant skiing the whole course in the dark. With my start being number three, I would not have enough time to inspect the course, and also do a warmup run before going out of the start gate.
I was a trained professional who had dreamt of racing Kitzbühel since before I can remember. As a kid, I always pretended to be Herman Meier, racing the Streif. Now here I was. The ten second beep of the clock was counting down. I looked back at my ski service man, Gernot, and I asked “I don’t think this is a very good idea, do you?” Incredibly, his answer was maybe the one and only thing that could have helped. With a face as white as a ghost, he said “I don’t really think so either, but you’ve got this.” Hahaha, whatever that meant, I guess we were on the same page. It got me out the start gate, and that’s what mattered. Even more to the point, I made it safely to the bottom.
Since then, Kitzbühel has always been a tough race for me. I scared myself that first time, and at least one section of the course each and every time I go down. Years later, again standing at the start, I must have looked a little more nervous than the rest of the racers. Bode Miller approached and we started to shoot the shit. Along with being one of the best racers of his time, he is an intelligent and insightful man. And he always had a keen eye! That day on the Hahnenkamm, Bode said to me “Today is my one and only chance a year that I am truly able to prove how good a ski racer I am. You train your whole life for moments like this. Seize the opportunity, don’t fear it.”
Every course has technical sections and nerve-wracking moments. But the Streif truly pushes every facet of ski racing, from technique to mental toughness to touch on the snow, gliding, aerodynamics, flats, steeps, ice, jumps, all of it. You are the greatest skier on the greatest slope, and today you are given the rare opportunity to showcase your talents in front of 80 thousand spectators, and millions around the world. Today and today only.
That day my run started out very well. I had a great start, my pushes were aggressive and on point. The first few turns I accelerated on the ice. Bringing as much speed as I could to the mausfall jump. Going over 80 km/h, I flew 60 meters and landed perfectly. I was feeling great. I started the first high-speed turn into the compression at 126 km/h. Suddenly, a little bobble on a rut I couldn’t see. I was in the nets. I tossed and turned through three layers of B net, positioned to keep racers from going into the trees. When I finally stopped, I was sore, and shocked. I quickly did my own self assessment to see if I was okay. I felt fine. I stumbled around, finding equipment. I had no poles or goggles. One ski was broken and didn’t have any bindings attached. The other ski seemed fine. So I stood and went to buckle my ski boots. My right boot was missing all of its buckles. What are the chances? One in one chance, by my calculation. So I have one ski boot done up, one ski intact, and a body with just some bruises. I skied down slowly and made my way to the finish area.
Since that race, I haven’t crashed in Kitzbühel, and I have only bettered my results. I have finished in the top ten in both Super G and Downhill. I would not have achieved this without facing my fear of that mountain and race course. Those results are wins in my eyes.
One day, maybe I’ll be mentally ready to win the race. But like every day since I started skiing, each time I put on skis, the goal is to be better than the last.
(Large photos by Getty Images)