St. Moritz downhill begins with 45-degree ‘Free Fall’
in December, I was in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and found myself in ski boots climbing 187 steel stairs to the top of the men’s downhill start for the 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships.
It’s called the Free Fall, and with a gradient of 45 degrees, it’s the steepest men’s downhill race start in the world. Since the World Championships were set to be held in two months time, I eagerly agreed to see this sporting highlight for myself.
It was terrifying, actually, and my legs were shaking on the ascent and at the top. I made sure to stand well away from the edge while looking out over the Corviglia ski area and down at the three-kilometer long downhill race course. I skied some of the course that day, too, at my own level of fast, but I couldn’t imagine starting it from the Free Fall, which accelerates athletes in a few second to around 140 kilometers per hour — about 85 miles per hour. The first 100 meters of drop are almost vertical, and just thinking about this put a knot in my throat.
Travis Ganong, of the U.S. Ski Team, completed his second training run down the course on Thursday, and I was able to get a minute with him for a remote interview about the upcoming race and its infamous start.
“Standing up at the start of the Free Fall is pretty nerve wracking because you’re up on top of this crazy mountain surrounded by cliffs and just exposure,” Ganong said. “And it’s pretty stressful just even standing there. It’s way more stressful standing there than it is to ski down from there.”
So now I see why I was scared — I should have just skied down it.
Ganong said growing up he skied all kinds of crazy steep and exposed terrain, so he’s actually comfortable with it.
“For me, getting out of the start is actually really relieving because I get to push out and go up to 80 miles an hour and just make that first turn,” he said.
Ganong said there is no arguing that the Free Fall looks scary, but that it’s really not that bad. He said other downhill starts are much more ominous.
“Starting a lot of other downhills, there’s a really scary section or icy section like right out of the get-go, like Kitzbuhel, Bormio, Santa Caterina,” he said. “The start here is really not that scary ’cause you just point it straight and make a little turn, and the snow’s always good.”
Ganong is “actually really bad” at starting on the flat when he has to skate, he said.
“So I actually love the start because you don’t have to really push out of the start, you just kind of roll into it and go,” he said. “It is dramatic, it’s just not that difficult.”
While these racers are clocking speeds of nearly 100 miles per hour at some points on the downhill course, Ganong said it actually never feels that fast because the gates are spaced so far apart and there are no other people around.
“It’s quiet and it’s smooth,” he said. “It’s hard to describe how it feels; it almost feels like slow motion, even thought we’re going super fast.”
Ganong said he “skied really well” during his training run on Thursday and that he’s looking forward to race day on Saturday.
“I’ll look at the video and make a couple little adjustments and just go,” Ganong said. “Push a little harder, get the race skis out, the race suit, then we’ll be good.”
Watch the men’s downhill race live on NBCSports.com on Saturday at 4 a.m., and on NBC on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. for same-day delayed televised coverage. For more information on the 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, visit http://www.st moritz2017.ch.