Layden: Alpine skiing’s moment of truth is unlike anything else in the sport
Ligety says: “You get an idea, based on years and years of racing and training, whether it’s good skiing or bad skiing. But there are also courses or weather conditions that are so horrible or exceptionally difficult that even good skiing seems bad. skiing for the best skiers in the world.”
“And the other thing that’s weird,” says Ligety, “in other sports you have rivals. But in skiing, all you can do is ski your race. You have no way to inflict your will on their performance or on their skiing.”
Even with the most refined sensory connection to their sport, skiers can misjudge their performance. Four years ago in PyeongChang, Vonn’s fourth and final Olympics, she felt her downhill run was good enough to overtake the leader Sophie Goggia from Italy. Instead, she finished 0.47 seconds behind Goggia. “I thought I was fast enough to win the race,” says Vonn. “It was really disappointing.” (Ragnhild Mowinkel of Norway later went down and separated Goggia and Vonn, winning the silver medal and leaving Vonn in the bronze).
Similarly, Ligety remembers competing in the slalom portion of the combined event at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, the event in which he won his first gold medal, eight years earlier. His slalom time was only seventh best, leaving him nowhere near medals. “I didn’t think I had a spectacular race,” says Ligety, “but I was shocked at how bad it was.”
During the reporting of this story, I asked skiers if they would like an interval timer on the slope, if they could adapt their race, knowing that they were ahead or behind. This is strictly a thinking exercise, as such a system would be unfair to the first skier on the course, who would have no guidelines. It could also be impractical. “At these speeds, it would have to be something really simple,” says Vonn. “Someone raises a red flag or a green flag, or a big red or green light somewhere very visible.”
Johnson says: “The coolest thing about ski racing is you’re at that point where your body and your muscles are working 100%, you’re doing incredibly sporty things and your brain is working 100% as well. You just have to keep training. That’s all there is.”
Sullivan recalls a story from his Lake Tahoe friend and four-time Olympian Daron Rahlves, one of only two Americans to win the Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbühel, Austria. “Daron told me when he won at Kitzbuhel, there was a place halfway, where there are spectators and a big loudspeaker and the announcer is really loud and Daron knew he was making a good race because the announcer was so excited and that motivated him to keep riding.” Sullivan burst out laughing. “But, you know, that’s pretty rare.”
Instead, red or green wait at the bottom. The finish line break continues. A core of mystery remains.