Cold, hard truth: Danger always looms in downhill

Updated: February 14, 2006, 12:12 AM ET
By Carrie Sheinberg | Special to ESPN.com

SAN SICARIO, Italy -- The truth is not welcome at the women's Olympic downhill course. Or any downhill course for that matter. Because often, the truth, is just too real.

That's why every racer on the hill is lying to herself.

So in Monday's training run, when reigning Olympic champion Carole Montillet-Carles caught an edge and slammed into the netting, prompting a 10-minute course delay so officials could cart her off the slopes, nobody wanted to know.

And minutes later, when the helicopter circled, coming to carry the fallen French champion off to the hospital, racers and coaches looked the other way.

"I knew Montillet went down," said 21-year-old American medal contender Julia Mancuso. "We were getting a course report and [our coach] was like 'there's gonna be a hold.' I thought, 'OK, that doesn't sound so good.'"

Even in the odd case when racers might want to know the truth, fat chance their coaches are going to tell them.

"Everyone was falling," said decorated Austrian veteran Alexandra Meissnitzer, "I got on the radio [from the start] with my coaches and said 'what's going on?' They said 'it's fine,' I said 'are you sure?'"

The truth is danger. It not only looms in downhill, it's the main attraction. Racers, and even their coaches, will do anything to convince themselves that there is some semblance of safety in the absurdity of hurling their bodies at 80 mph down an icy, gnarly, twisting mountainside on a pair of high-tech sticks.

It's a full-blown game of liar's poker out there -- and top American downhiller Lindsey Kildow called everyone's bluff.

The No. 2-ranked speedster in the world was midway through the course when she caught a little air over a roller. As she landed, she caught an edge and her ski violently tracked left while her body tried to turn right. She was caught in a 60 mph split until her right knee buckled at an obscene angle, hit the ground and propelled her 15 feet through the air. When she finally came to a stop, she was laid out in the middle of the course, skis still on her feet, and crying out in pain.

It was a moment of hideous reality.

U.S. teammate Kirsten Clark, still on the mend from her own horrific crash two years ago, couldn't get away fast enough. She slid under the fence at the finish area and went toward the stands where her family awaited.

Caught by reporters looking for a reaction, all she said was "I didn't see it. I don't want to talk about it."

While watching from the finish area, Austrian Renate Goetschl, last season's World Cup downhill title holder, threw her hands over her face in fear as Kildow's body rag-dolled across the Jumbotron screen.

Meanwhile, with just three seconds left on the clock in the starting gate, Mancuso was pulled back out, and informed of yet another course hold.

"I knew that Lindsey crashed," Mancuso said. "I just didn't know how bad it was, or what was going on. [The coaches] were like 'it's nothing bad.' That's what they tell you always."

It was close to 15 minutes before Mancuso was allowed to push out of the gate. The crowd was still shaky, painfully aware of the danger of the day's run. Somehow, Mancuso was not. She sped to a solid fourth-place finish, setting her up well for Wednesday's race.

"I'm sort of trained to block it out," the seemingly fearless Californian said. "It sucks when you hear what happened or if it's bad before you go, but a lot of the time they sort of keep us in the dark on top. There's always stuff going on. There's girls taken by helicopters and there's just stuff going on all the time that you can't really think of it. You just have to push out of the start and ski."

Those who were in one piece at the finish say there are no problems with the course. They like the non-stop terrain, much of which has been added since last season, when many of the top women racers complained (yes, Kildow among was among them), that the hill was too easy.

It is a technical hill, without any real gliding sections, and the speeds are not exceedingly high.

"I don't know why so many girls crashed," Meissnitzer said. " It's just that the snow changed a little bit, it's catchy. That's it, it's not more dangerous or something."

Remarkably, and almost inconceivably, Montillet and Kildow are each reported to be in one piece. They are bruised, sore and still under close observation, and while it is more likely they will both take the day off, neither one was scratched from Tuesday's start list.

Let's hear it for the truth.

Carrie Sheinberg, three-time national ski racing champion and top American finisher in the alpine slalom event at the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.