Death and Danger in the Downhill

Death and Danger in the Downhill

Poisson’s death has been a stark reminder of the risk racers regularly subject themselves to when they plummet down the rock-hard, icy track of a downhill course at 90 miles an hour. After his accident, World Cup racers from around the world suddenly found it difficult to throw themselves down the mountain with the same unbridled aggressiveness.

“The first couple of runs after David’s death, I think it did shake my confidence,” the veteran Canadian downhiller Manuel Osborne-Paradis said after Thursday’s Olympic training run here. “I don’t think I was alone; it was going on throughout the tour.”

Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, who has won six gold medals in the Olympics and the world championships, shook his head when asked about Poisson’s death. Svindal was seriously injured in a gruesome, somersaulting downhill accident in 2007.

Aksel Lund Svindal – Beaver Creek Sturz Video by CapSmoker

“It was a shock to your system,” Svindal said. “We know the risk and we’ve known it since we were teenagers. We sort of put that away, as we must to continue to do this thing we love.”

Svindal paused, referred to Poisson and added: “But then, you know, when it’s something like that … ”

Svindal appeared as if he wanted to finish his sentence or complete his thought. Instead, he stopped himself and asked if he could change the subject.


The French racer Brice Roger wore a bib in memory of his teammate David Poisson in a race in Lake Louise, Canada. Poisson was killed in a crash during training for the competition.

Don Emmert/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The fact is, bad things can happen when you are going 80 miles an hour in a skintight suit and trying to find the hardest, iciest snow to go as fast as you can.

“We all know that if we fly into the nets, it’s going to hurt,” Bennett said.

Bennett’s teammate Andrew Weibrecht, who has won silver and bronze Olympic medals and also has sustained multiple debilitating injuries in falls, said that the scene near the start of a downhill race is typically taut and overwrought because of the competitive stakes involved. But everyone is also cognizant of the consequences of a little slip-up or a bad break, or even factors outside a racer’s control, like an ill-timed gust of wind or an uneven patch of snow.

Sometimes, an early racer in the field will crash, or several skiers might crash, leaving the rest of the field waiting near the start gate for 20 or 30 minutes while the injured are treated. That adds tension.

“When a few good guys go down and you’re up there waiting, you can ask yourself: ‘Do I really want to do this? And how do I do this and stay safe?’” Weibrecht said.

Finding a way to manage the intrinsic danger unquestionably seems to be part of every downhill racer’s quiver of acquired skills. Not surprisingly, it is not something that has been learned by every racer’s family.

“My poor mother,” Bennett said. “She doesn’t bring up the risks to me, but I definitely know there are times when my mom is pretty freaked out.”

Osborne-Paradis, meanwhile, said his wife was the first person he called when he heard of Poisson’s death.

“We talked about it and we talked about all the things we go through,” said Osborne-Paradis, who in 2011 was evacuated to a hospital via helicopter after a spill. But she did not ask him to stop skiing, or tell him to go slower. “This is also a means to make money for my family and to live a good life.”

And it is true that downhill racers are not in any way consumed by fear. Everyone falls in ski racing and most of those accidents do not lead to serious injuries. Many cause no injury at all. The American downhiller Jared Goldberg, who will compete in Pyeongchang, crashed recently in three World Cup races. Once his teammates heard that he survived each fall with only minor injuries, they got together and watched video of the crashes.

“We were laughing,” Bennett said with a chuckle.

But there is a darker side, however remote or repressed. If it’s a really bad crash, Bennett said, they don’t watch it or talk about.

“That’s just the way it is,” he said, his face stiffening. “It’s what we’ve signed up for.”

Correction: February 10, 2018

An earlier version of this article misstated the original date for the men’s downhill race. It was supposed to happen on Sunday in Pyeongchang, not on Monday.

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