Former Canadian skier Todd Brooker suffered one of the most spectacular crashes the sport has ever seen on the famed Hahnenkamm course in Kitzbuehel, Austria. On the 29th anniversary of that infamous moment, Brooker reflects on his biggest career victory in Kitzbuehel and the crash that nearly ended his life.
The Hahnenkamm is easily the greatest course. In any sporting event, the ones that have the most history behind them are the ones athletes feel most passionate about winning. It would be like the Masters. When you win at Augusta, you join the club of [Jack] Nicklaus and [Arnold] Palmer and all these great golfers. It’s the same with Kitzbuehel. It’s so important to the racers who want to join the elite group of past champions.
Canadians had won this event three years in a row. Ken Read won the event in 1980, and then Steve Podborski took the next two titles. In 1983, I wanted to join those guys in the record books. I came 12th the year before so that was close enough to feel like I had a chance with another year of experience to be able to win. You see your teammates win that trophy, and you want to get your name on there as well. That was an incentive.
Kitzbuehel was my first victory. It was pretty important for me that I won my first World Cup race, and it just happened to be on the most difficult course there is. It was no fluke. I was just elated beyond belief. It was a surreal moment as I went through the finish line. It was all a blur. You don’t remember too much about what happened. Ken came over and congratulated me right away, as did [Austrian legend] Franz Klammer. Seeing all these guys that I respected and looked up to for years showing the same respect was a wonderful feeling.
Skiers revere the Hahnenkamm course. At the other courses and venues, racers are more relaxed and loose because they talk about who they need to beat in order to get World Cup points. Nobody ever talks like that about Kitzbuehel because the greater challenge is the one between you and the hill.
Nobody is 100 per cent confident they’re going to have a good run or make it down to the bottom because there are so many places that are dangerous. The first 30 seconds are the biggest challenge on the course. You drop out of the start and within the first three-and-a-half to four seconds you’re going over 100 kilometres. So then you make a quick direction change, you go off a jump, you hit a compression, you stand back up after the compression then make another turn. It all happens so fast. Usually after you get through the first 30 seconds, there’s a little bit of a road way and then you think, ‘oh geez, I made it, so now my chances are good.’
You couldn’t build a Kitzbuehel today. There are a lot of elements of the course that aren’t really legal anymore. If you were building a brand new course, it just wouldn’t work. At Kitzbuehel, they allow sections that are narrow and sections where you don’t see anything. You’re kind of blind, like you’re falling off into the abyss. These dangerous areas wouldn’t be allowed at other courses.
The year before my serious crash, I fell near that same spot. I went off the jump and I caught an edge. I then fell down in the compression area and I ended up on the other side of the course in the fence. But I didn’t give it another thought.
The crash in 1987 changed everything. It was on the third training run on a Friday. I went through a mid-section run at the Hausbergkante jump. I then made a left-hand turn and went across the side hill. It was the long side hill with a jump at the end of it. The side hill is really bumpy and my ski fell off on one of those bumps. I rammed into the gate at the end of the side hill right on the jump. I started tumbling. My head connected with the very bottom of the gate right where it attaches to the snow, and it didn’t move. That’s where I got knocked out.
Everyone says I was tumbling like a rag doll. But you have to remember that at the time the gates weren’t made out of plastic and the panels weren’t tear-away, so nothing was done in terms of safety. The gates were made out of saplings, where somebody has to peel the branches off. They would water them and they were iced into the hills so they wouldn’t move.
It was such an unusual looking fall. I’ve fallen a million times but you normally slide when you fall. If you’re conscious, you fall over, put your arms out and you start sliding on your back or your side. No one ever rotates and tumbles like I tumbled, and the reason why is because I was knocked unconscious in the first part of the crash. And that’s why I thought ‘geez, that’s embarrassing.’ What a strange fall that was. If you watch a 1,000 downhill falls you’d never see anyone tumble like that.
I was absolutely amazed that I wasn’t paralyzed, that I didn’t break my neck or my back. How could I not have broken something critical? I had a concussion, a broken nose and I wrecked three ligaments in my left knee. That was the thing that amazed me the most. I’m really lucky. I should’ve broken my neck.
Honestly, I think I slept for four months. For four months I’d kind of wake up, have something to eat, fall asleep at the table and then my wife would walk me into the other room asking me if I wanted to watch TV. I’d lie on the sofa, fall asleep instantly and wake up in the afternoon. I’d have something to eat and fall asleep again.
People always come up to me and say it’s the most spectacular crash they’ve ever seen. And I agree. It’s just the fact that I was knocked out and I was unconscious right from the very start of it. Crashes usually shouldn’t be that dangerous. You catch an edge, you flip over and you slide. The first thing I think of whenever I watch the video is ‘thank goodness it was on tape.’ If there was no video of the crash, I could tell everyone I had a really bad fall, and no one would believe me.
Large photos courtesy of The Canadian Press and Pentaphoto