Timing is everything in skiing
June 3, 2013
This is a mathematical problem that anyone who has completed an eighth-grade math class should be able to easily solve: A ski racer in a downhill on today's Olympic team will average 70 mph from top to bottom. How far will he travel in 1/1,600,000ths of a second?
This is how precise the electronic timing machines of Tag Heuer can be for today's ski racing.
This timing system is, of course, far different than what was available during the one year I was a ski racer with Ward Baker. We traveled from ski resort to ski resort and lived in the parking lots at the base of the many ski mountains.
In those days, various methods of timing were evolving or discarded. The best way was on a hill that had wires strung from bottom to top that were buried during the summer so there could be voice communication from the bottom to the top. Someone at the bottom would call "Five, four, three, two, one, go!" The starter at the top would release his hand from the shoulder of the racer, and the racer could then start down the race course. At the same time, the people at the bottom with stop watches would push the button on the word "go." It was simple, but it worked somehow, and I was able to finish in the top three of six races that I entered at six resorts.
If there was no telephone hook-up available at the top then a flag on a long pole was used instead. There was always some question among the timers as to whether they started their watches when the flag started moving, when it was partway down, when the pole hit the ground, when the flag began to fold up on the ground or when the flag finished folding up.
In 1949, we heard that Emile Allais had come up with a good idea. He stretched a blanket across the hill supported on two poles so that the racer could not be seen from the finish. When the racer came into view from behind the blanket, the timers started their watches. I only entered one race that had this blanket approach. That was in the Emile Allais Cup in Portillo, Chile, in 1954. I was 29 years old, and I still have the first-place trophy from that race somewhere in a box.
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Within a few years, more accurate timing was a requirement for any race. Starting gates had been invented, and as we lunged out of the gate a wand would be moved by our legs and the timing would begin.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Jean-Claude Killy perfected the lunging out of the gate that led to him winning 17 World Cup races in a single season, including three Olympic gold medals. It was not until a year or so later that someone figured out that Killy was able to have his upper body lunging almost out in front of his ski tips before his boots tripped the starting wand signaling the very precise timing clocks at the time.
In the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Pepi Stiegler beat Billy Kidd from America by four one-hundredths of a second. Pepi Stiegler, in a speech at The Yellowstone Club in Montana, said one night, "That four one-hundredths of a second total time difference in two runs of the slalom was the difference between my getting a job as the ski school director in Nubs Knob, Mich., or Jackson Hole, Wyo." This was a very significant difference in earned income from that microscopic time differential.
Yet that amount of time in almost four minutes of slalom racing was less than six inches in actual distance.
With the incredible amount of variables in a ski race such as skis, wax, boots, 15 or more years of ski racing training, competition, how well the racers slept the night before the race, what they had for breakfast, how many details were handled by a ski technician etc., all went into the victory.
To miss that job as a ski school or winter sports director by four one-hundredths of a second is what drives all young skiers to aim for the top.
And why not? They have not experienced enough of the agony of defeat to realistically assess their chances of being the best in the world.
Just make sure that along the way to your chosen goal, you study arithmetic, because everything in the world revolves around math no matter how small the number that decides your destiny.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years. His column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated.
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