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Tuesday, January 8, 2002
Updated: January 19, 9:40 PM ET
Bergoust hopes to make quantum leap at Salt Lake

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com


There are Olympians who started playing hockey at such a young age that they were fitted for their second set of dentures by age 14. Olympians who skated so many routines at shopping mall ice rinks that they were mistaken for Orange Julius employee. Olympians who sled down icy slopes so many times that they have Flexible Flyer permanently worn into their chests.

Eric Bergoust
Eric Bergoust is the U.S.'s best hope for Olympic gold in freestyle skiing at Salt Lake.
And then there is aerial skier Eric Bergoust.

He began his career by piling mattresses outside his parent's home so he could practice leaping off the chimney.

"My brothers and I also used to set a mini trampoline near the edge of a bridge," Bergoust explained in an e-mail. "And when a car would come by, we'd run across the bridge in front of it and bounce off the mini-tramp, over the railing and into the river below."

Somehow, it's hard to imagine Bonnie Blair getting her start that way.

Then again, Blair never had to hurtle down a mountainside, back-flip 60 feet into the air, twist around three or four times and try to land without breaking her neck, either. But that's just part of everyday competition for Olympic aerial skiers such as Bergoust.

"Most of the time I'm not scared at all," said Bergoust, 32. "It's never a question of whether or not I'm going to get hurt. It usually just comes down to whether it's going to be a nice looking jump or an ugly one."

They rarely are ugly ones for Bergoust, at least not in competition. He won the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics when he performed two quads to set a world scoring record just days after a terrible practice jump crash that left him with ribs so sore that it hurt to breathe.

That gold medal was the reward for a career that began in 1985 when Bergoust saw a World Cup aerial skiing competition on TV. Soon, he was raising money for his training by performing tumbling exhibitions with his brothers. He bought a $400 car and drove to Lake Placid where he practiced his sport, attempting jump after jump for years before finally reaching the Olympics in 1994 at Lillehammer, where he finished seventh.

Despite back and collarbone injuries -- back-flipping and twisting through the air on skis is not the easiest sport on the body -- he persevered and won the gold medal in Nagano four years ago. He's a favorite again in Salt Lake and for good reason -- he's one of a handful of skiers to successfully land a quint twisting triple flip as the sport continues to evolve with athletes pushing the envelope further and further.

"One of the most difficult things about aerial skiing is that it's sometimes hard to find little steps to take from one trick to another," Bergoust said. "We can't add a half twist or half flip to the trick we're already doing. We have to take a pretty big leap from one trick to the next.

"I've been preparing for five twists in three flips by doing four twists in two flips. If I can get that trick down well enough, then I just start higher, take more speed into the jump, do two flips with four twists, see that I'm high enough to do another flip with a twist and just live it."

It takes a leap of faith to pull that off. But then again, this is a guy who thought nothing of leaping off a chimney.

"Luckily, I look at things very logically and once I make a decision, I don't waver," said Bergoust, who wants to compete at the 2006 Olympics before becoming a coach. "I've gotten used to trusting logic over my feelings because many times, especially if the weather is bad, I feel like I shouldn't be attempting a certain trick. But I know I am ready to do it and after I get the first one out of the way, I wonder why I was scared. "

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com