Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Falling With Style

Like many people riveted to the broadcasts of the Olympic downhill runs, I am amazed at how these skiers perform, all the time perched on the edge of disaster. Bode Miller, for one, is almost too exciting to watch, especially if I want to relax and randomly view what event NBC was dishing up that particular night. When I watch him carve into those icy turns, the sense of disaster is heightened by the sound of steel grinding an edge-hold into an icy slope.
I enjoy watching the Olympics because these exciting images bring back memories of the thrilling moments of the past. In 1976, I was working at my first job in Manhattan and the Olympic coverage was expanded for the Innsbruck games in Austria. Comparing notes with fellow workers around the proverbial water cooler, I was shocked to learn that for many, this was the first time, they had ever seen a downhill race. They were city dwellers who lived their entire life in the self-proclaimed paradise of Brooklyn, as flat as stretches of Kansas and Oklahoma. Scheming every week just where and how I’d get to which New England ski slope was something I did as a matter of routine. They couldn't imagine that at all. They had no idea how a ski attached to your feet or how you might dress. To them, the competitors were “sliding down the hill,” or as Woody put it to Buzz Lightyear, “falling with style.”
Life at the top of a ski lift, especially at Stowe, Killington and Whiteface is a completely different world. I liken it to when Dorothy opens that farmhouse door and steps into Oz and provides commentary to Toto along the lines of not being in Kansas anymore.
After skiing all the major eastern slopes in the East, I arrived at the conclusion that there is no slope that comes close to Whiteface, the scene of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. I traveled there with my family for years before the 1980 Olympics, when the original 1932 Olympic facilities were still being used. The tiny little town and surrounding venues was probably the best kept secret of winter sports.
Every year, the first question we asked when we arrived in Lake Placid was “Is Chair 2 open?” There was a lift, used only when snow conditions were perfect, that took skiers to the peak, to a run that was left natural, where they hadn't ventured with machine grooming equipment, and tree stumps, rocks and other hidden goodies were disguised by 30-40 inches of snow. After a stretch of being shut out for several years, our patient wait was finally rewarded and my older brother and I could not believe our good fortune one year: Chair 2 was open for business.
Eagerly we took the two lift rides to be able to get to Chair 2. We noticed that no other people were going up in Chair 2 and there was no lift line. We were to find out why in a few moments. At the top, at the end of the lift, there was a sign that read something to the effect of “if you are not an expert skier, please go back down.” Naturally, my brother and I laughed that off. We didn't need no steenkin’ sign to tell us we were probably in “over our heads," figuratively and literally.
There was no trail, just a wooden sign with an arrow pointing the logical way along a deceivingly flat cut through evergreen trees, so laden with heavy snow they must look deformed in the summer. We followed the break in the forest until we came to a huge, wide-open area the size of a football field, but one stood on its edge at an angle that made us wonder how snow stayed on the slope.
Offering the adage “age goes before beauty” I told my older brother “you first.” What he did next was both surprising and hilarious. He  moved about 10 feet ahead on the slope, tripped over the first rock or stump, and disappeared down a rabbit hole, out of sight. Even though I knew that was a preview to what I’d be doing in a few moments, it cracked me up when he popped out, like a gopher, about 10 yards down the slope. Then I followed him and duplicated his accident completely. Traversing that slope, the elusive one that we lusted after for years, took us at least two hours. And it was work. It was a brilliantly sunny day but I am pretty sure that after we finally made it down, we must have either selected a very relaxing intermediate slope or called it a day, exhilarated but exhausted.
During the 1980 Olympics, I was too busy working at the newspaper to get to Lake Placid. My sister, Tina, and my mother went and experienced the mad electricity of the moment known as the “Miracle on Ice.” Towards the end of the games, I had one of the best ideas I ever had, and I can count mine on one hand. I called my best friend, Harold, and suggested that when the Olympic Village was emptied out after the Friday closing ceremonies that we would go to Lake Placid to ski. Like swimming upstream.
Our reward was empty slopes, no lift lines, Olympic–standard groomed surfaces and, something I completely forgot about: Chair 2.
The downside of winning the 1980 Olympic bid was a forever-changed Lake Placid. The cute, sleepy, character-drenched village was transformed into a glitzy ski resort. Real hotels instead of the kitschy bed and breakfasts, tiny stores on Main Street gone forever, and Olympic venues upgraded from the 1932 state they were still in during the 60s and 70s.
Chair 2 was no different. It had become the 1980 Women’s downhill course, which was regarded as much faster, steeper and more dangerous than the men’s course.
Harold and I arrived at the top of a Chair 2 that I didn't recognize. It was like returning to my Model T and finding a Lamborghini. But it was magical. Not a bump in sight. Groomed like a golf fairway at an exclusive course. We didn't see another human being until we got to the bottom. The course was lined with that orange plastic stretch fencing. The hay bales were placed here and there in case of a crash. The markers were there—in fact everything was still there; the whole scene lacked only the cheering crowds.
It was the ski run of my life. Usually on expert slopes (The Mt. Snow trail called “The Jaws of Death” comes to mind), I have to pick out three or four moguls ahead and plan my turns, my escape routes, my emergency stops, in case I miss a turn or get hurled ahead by an unexpected bump and get out of control at a high speed. But there on Whiteface, there were no bumps and as soon as you put your skis into the fall line, the direct straight line down a slope, the acceleration was shocking. The thrill of staying with that speed was exhilarating and the only limiting factor was the heat of the burn in your thighs and quads. At a certain point, when you thought your leg was going to burst into flames, you would turn sideways and slide a hundred feet to a stop and then lean on your poles until you recover, both your breath, your stamina, and your nerve.
After that, skiing was never the same. All my runs would forever be compared to that one Saturday. When I see the downhill on TV now, I am immediately taken back to that day, those runs. I remember; I appreciate.
Just like there can never truly be another “Miracle on Ice” because the circumstances were so unique, personally, I’ll never see another run quite like Franz Klammer in the 1976 Olympics. He was the favorite to win the men’s downhill those Olympics. As an Austrian, skiing on home snow, the pressure was enormous. For Austrians, the downhill is like batting with the bases loaded in a tied seventh game of the World Series, the final putt on the 18th hole in the Masters, the field goal attempt in overtime at the Super Bowl, and the half court buzzer-beater attempt in the final game of March Madness. Klammer was the last skier to compete and had to beat a terrific time. He skied on the edge of disaster and for the two minutes he blistered down the slope, I think everyone watching held their breath. I remember one turn and leap when he went airborne and just barely recovered in the air and the announcer was screaming. He won by .33 seconds. I watched Jean Claude Killy, Bill Johnson, Jean Saubert, and now Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso and admired them all but, for me, Franz Klammer’s 1976 Innsbruck downhill will always be my favorite. As much fun as an un-groomed Chair 2 run with my brother was, streaking down the 1980 women’s downhill was my favorite ski experience.
          Like all great events, I can only experience it once but when I watch the downhill every four years, I get to relive my own “Olympic” moment. In my case, Woody was right—I was “falling with style.”


  1. This is beautifully written, Greg, and I don't even watch the Olympics. (I seldom watch any kind of sport except baseball, and then only during the playoffs and the World Series.) I'm married to a guy who frequently watches two games at once and listens to a third on his headset. (His assortment of headsets is what has kept us together for 27 years.)
    Our one and only skiing adventure was in Park City, Utah. I fell the first day and took out three of the four ligaments in my left knee. The next day we were back in the same ER after Mark dislocated his shoulder. We spent most of the next three days in the hot tub, watching my daughter and her husband fly down the slopes with all the other showoffs.
    In my defense, however, it was the first time I'd ever seen snow, and here in iron-flat Florida, the only skiing we do is on the water. Different sport, altogether.

    1. Thanks for the complement and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm a huge Lake Placid fan and one of my guilty pleasures is playing ice hockey with a group of 50+ people and my annual high school reunion game. I think I write better when I just describe something I love doing because I really don't have top think about it.