This article first appeared in Ski Racing earlier this season. Check out the official fancy version here. In honor of the upcoming Hahnenkamm (the king daddy of fear fests), and speed camps/events everywhere I am re-posting it. Huge thanks go to all I interviewed for their thoughtful, honest answers.
“Don’t be afraid of being scared. To be afraid is a sign of common sense. Only complete idiots are not afraid of anything.” ― Carlos Ruiz Zafon
I ran across this quote recently and, having lived in a state of managed fear for a good portion of my seven years on the World Cup downhill circuit, it comforted me in a way. Fear is not something you chat about with your teammates and competitors but I always suspected I was not alone, particularly amongst the majority of us who had major crashes and injuries along the way.
Then I read an article in which a top sports doctor referred to Lindsey Vonn and other elite racers as having “short memories” after accidents: “They have no fear. They don’t remember the fall, all they remember is winning.”
This got my fur up. I know I am a poor barometer of the fear factor (part of the reason I wrote Shut Up and Ski was to show aspiring ski racers that fearfulness and Downhill racing are not mutually exclusive), so I reached out to the most successful female downhillers I know. Between them they have won 17 WC DHs, 10 World and Olympic medals and a bazillion National titles. Here’s what they said:
Fear is real. They may not have talked about it, but it was always there as Holly Flanders explains: “I didn’t try to ignore the fear or to cover it up, but I didn’t bring it front and center either. There was no reason to. We all knew we were afraid.”
Fear is healthy: Hilary Lindh says simply, “Without some fear, you’d take stupid risks and end up perpetually injured or dead.”
Fear can be your friend, or coach: Cindy Nelson recalls being a 15-year-old rookie atop her first “real DH” in Portillo, Chile. “It was BIG, I felt small. I was scared.” She was scared of making it through the hairy, rutted course, and also of asking for help from coaches or teammates. “I took a deep breath and pushed out of the starting gate telling myself that if I took it one turn at a time I could do it.” That strategy guided Nelson in ski racing and in life. “When you are overwhelmed and don’t know what to do, break the problem into small manageable parts.”
Fear can be motivating: Flanders says, “Fear was my friend. It got the adrenaline going. It got me to be more on my toes, more ready, as long as I didn’t give in to it. Lindh concurs: “Without fear…I don’t think it would be quite as fun to overcome it and survive.”
Our memories are just fine, thank you: Cindy Nelson points out that the “ability to use our short term memory is one of the greatest assets of a speed skier…we trained to memorize every inch, every important nuance of the DHs and SGSs, in a very short period of time.” Tori Pillinger suffered one of the grisliest ski racing accidents ever in 1987, when she intercepted a steel finish post across her body at top speed. Nonetheless, she made it back to running DH. “Memory had nothing to do with getting back out on the hill. It was fear of failure that drove me back out there and it was the hope of a podium spot that filled the spaces in between.” Everyone I asked remembered the crashes and their aftermath, which leads me to…
Fearlessness is divine, and mortal: Picabo Street believes that some of the great Downhillers don’t really experience fear. “It’s a gift we’re given and we’re crazy enough to ride it. I enjoyed that ride, until I broke my femur in 1998.” After that Street had to be more disciplined in her approach and tactics. Similarly, Kirsten Clark spent her first ten years as a World Cup Downhiller greeting flat light and gnarly conditions with glee. “Those were conditions I could excel in because I didn’t have a fear of getting injured. Then I crashed…” Clark blew out her ACL and later contracted a staph infection. “The last three years were a different story for me. I knew what it was like to ski in pain. I wasn’t as fond of those tough conditions anymore.”
Management is Key: The real gift of successful downhillers is not of fearlessness but of having a process to manage fear productively in a calm and focused way. “There’s a fine line between fear that is invigorating and helps you focus, and fear that is crippling,” says Lindh. Post injury Street had to tell herself, “Replace the fear with a task at hand.” Some days you need to accept your limitations. As Flanders explained, “If I didn’t feel it was safe to go full blast, I would sand-bag a bit, especially in training runs. I lasted for 10 years on the World Cup Downhill circuit and I think that is part of the reason why.”
Fear is for tough guys too: Pam Fletcher admits that she was “sort of crazy” in her desire to push it to the edge then look for more. But she always remembered when a top male downhiller backed out of the starting gate at Kitzbuhel because he just didn’t feel right. “Knowing that in the back of my head was like a hall pass in case I ever needed it.”
I haven’t officially surveyed male downhillers, but I recently got a hint at what I will discover when I ran into Billy Kidd and asked his thoughts on the topic. Kidd immediately recalled what it was like to be a slalom skier from Stowe, VT, running #1 in his first Olympic Downhill, in front of thousands of Austrian fans. In this extreme case the fear was more like paralysis, but even with more experience it never disappeared. As Kidd puts it: “If you don’t have any fear, you end up in the hospital.”