Adhering to the wisdom of proverbs
BEAVER CREEK – Whether you’re a skier embarking on a race, a friend or family of an athlete, a coach, a spectator, or just any ol’ Joe with an important event lying ahead of you, there is a wise old adage that advises you to “clear your head of expectations.”I think just about all of us know this is easier said that done. There is also a phenomenon out there which dictates that things happen when you least expect them. I’m a big believer in this.Bode Miller, Daron Rahlves and at least a dozen other World Cup racers were certainly not looking over their shoulders, expecting to be swallowed by the Birds of Prey giant slalom course Saturday. But, a little too much lean around a gate, a little too much aggression that doesn’t agree with a little too much grip in the snow, is all it takes to end a race. Or a season. Or even a life.Thankfully, nobody’s life or season ended on the GS course Saturday, but plenty of skiers, with one tiny misstep, in a literal split-second, lost their race.I could never, ever be a ski racer. Even growing up skiing on the Buddy Werner League in Vail, somewhere in my 11-year-old brain there existed during every single competition a constant flicker of awareness that I could fall around any one of the icy gates. After many falls around the gates in a pursuit that never extended (go figure) beyond recreational racing, as well as many mistakes and accidents in bike races and other sport-related activities – some of which have resulted in broken bones and torn ligaments – the fear, that menacing spark, is still there.
This week, as I’ve stood and watched Daron, Bode, Hermann Maier and the rest of my heroes – I can safely say that all athletes competing on the World Cup are my heroes – tear down these Birds of Prey racecourses, despite my excitement, my acute hope that they’ll nail it and win the race, that little flicker of paranoia is still nagging:Pleeeeease ….. don’t crash.My rationale and my imagination are constantly at odds with each other. When, in my own sporting endeavors, entirely out of my conscious control, my imagination pitches forth a flash of some possible catastrophe, my rationale is squaring up to it and giving it a good shove.Just what the hell are you thinking? Haven’t you heard of self-fulfilling prophecy?I’m just glad my unwitting prophecies and their subsequent fulfillments – injuries, crashes and unhappy endings – affect nobody outside of myself. It was too early in the race Saturday for my catastrophic imagination to set in when Bode and Daron took their spills. Like the racers themselves, my mind was just beginning to gear up as they launched onto the course. OK, looking good. Nice turn, nice speed, very smooth … CRASH.Just when you least expect it.
But. On a more positive note, it can also work the other way.When Maier shot across the finish line Saturday and hesitated before glancing over at the scoreboard, he put his arms out in what appeared to be disbelief when he saw his name at the top. Of course, it’s nothing new for Maier to be at the top of a race (although he hasn’t finished top-three in GS since 2001). He ended up taking second Saturday to Lasse Kjus of Norway. And he definitely looked surprised. So. The phenomenon strikes again.”I never suspected, especially in giant slalom, to be on the podium this weekend,” Maier said after the race. “I made mistakes in the middle section. After I crossed the finish line, I thought it’s not possible for me to be the leader.”Kjus, who, before Friday, hadn’t won a World Cup giant slalom since 1996, also had something to say about expectations. “In the start today, I was not expecting that I could go all the way to the top,” he said. “I was hoping I would be among the best …” Hope can go a long way.
One guy whose hope (and obvious skill) carried him magnificently through this year’s Birds of Prey is Austrian Stephan Goergl. On Tuesday afternoon before the racing started, as his teammates were being swarmed by the press at The Inn at Beaver Creek, Goergl sat alone, looking out the window. I sat down with him and we talked about Innsbruck, where he lives in Austria, and the eastern part of the country where he grew up. When I asked him about the races, he told me that he had only skied the Birds of Prey twice. The first time, he didn’t finish, and last year, he finished near the bottom of the field. He said he was hoping for a top-15 in this year’s super-G and GS races, maybe top-10, if he was really lucky. The sheer joy on his face after he crossed the finish line in Thursday’s super-G – with the glorious, yet totally unexpected, status of No. 1 – almost made my heart burst with happiness for him. That smile will be on his face for weeks, especially after his follow-up spectacular No. 5 finish in GS Saturday. He attributed his success to “going for it” and taking risks. This brings us to another proverb:The greater the risk, the greater the reward Maier indicated that risk might have played a role in his result Saturday.”After the flat section, I thought, ‘I’m very slow,’ so, I risked more. Maybe, it’s the key. You have to risk more,” he said.
Even Rahlves, who ended his 2004 Birds of Prey run – he won’t be competing in today’s slalom – on a less-than-ideal note, is not remorseful about the aggressive skiing that led up to his early crash Saturday. Because, even if his risks occasionally produce an unfavorable outcome, the positive outcomes bring a sweeter sense of success than those wrought by playing it safe. And, Rahlves is not somebody who plays it safe. He’s not someone who gives up anything.”A lot of guys trying to make the gate I went out on were giving up a lot to make it,” he said. “That’s the hardest thing I have to balance out, you know – how much do I give up? And, how much do you really stick your nose into it? I’m a guy whose going to be more aggressive.”Expectations are something you put on yourself. You expect to do certain things up on the hill. Or, whatever in life. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. The one thing I like is the chance to test myself and see what I’ve got. If I’m not pushing the limits, I could be coming safely down to the finish. In a way, it’s good to crash once in a while. It’s good to crash and get right back up. It makes you wake up a little bit.”Sports Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or firstname.lastname@example.org.