One minute and 47 seconds with Pete Patterson: his lungs roaring, his back whining (it has been broken), his brain pinched into a white tunnel where there is only ice and the words “down” and “speed”.
Hunkering into himself, slipping his skis back and forth to make his legs go loose, sucking air, and saying, “Relax, baby, relax and run.” And then the start.
Patterson, from Sun Valley, Idaho, at 19, is one of four of America’s downhill racers. His back broken once, his legs broken twice, he skis at 85 miles an hour down a madman’s funnel, the Olympic downhill final. there is no greater sports event to measure a man’s courage, cowardice or rainless refusal to accept danger.
Patterson is in the starting gate. The white chute opens up in front of him, the kind of place where 13 skiers have died in international competition since World War II and then: “Trying to get myself calm and excited, trying to get really psyched out, trying to blow myself out the gate. To explode!”
Patterson sees the more than two miles of Innsbruck’s Patscherkofel run in delineated segments: don’t lean back here at 35 miles an hour, watch out, there where the road runs across the track at 60 miles an hour, get down, get down, get down in the flat where the speed edges near 80.
“You’ve got to take it turn by turn.” he says. “The top is really slow for a ways. You just concentrate on keeping good body position, keeping your line and staying on the good, hard snow so you don’t slow down. You’re only going 30 to 40 into the first flat, then it’s 60 or 70 into the first curves. You start to bounce. There’s no more time. The idea of thought is not a good description of what happens in your brain. You are just reacting totally, wanting to go faster, wanting to stay alive.”
Five high-speed turns. Maybe 35 seconds gone on the big computerized clock at the bottom of the hill. All Patterson’s weight thrust downhill, his body pitched forward like a man leaning out a window. Hoping the slipstream doesn’t catch under his skis and send him screaming into the nets and haybales stretched in front of the tree line that only people watching television ever really see.
And the worse, 50 seconds gone on the clock, and what the skiers call a compression. A high bump and then a deep swelling, like a valley on the track, but taken so brutally fast that the racers who lose their nerve do it like a ski jumper; rising into the air instead of fighting down and into more speed.
“You know,” Patterson says,” that’s the place you could hang it up forever.”
Two roads slap across the track. The skis hurtle into them, the racer trying to keep his body low. Blow the turn and you run into bumps. Six of them. More bouncing, more chattering, more time lost, if it’s not done right. Then a 90 degree turn. Icy. A bummer. Driving into it, thigh muscles screaming.
More than a minute gone and close to the finish. “Not a fraction of a second to relax, to sit back in your head and say ‘C’mon Pete,’ or to get yourself up.” Patterson says. “No place to talk to yourself. There’s always something happening.”
A big bump remains to be finessed in order to come to the finish right. Then down again, plunging toward the rising noise and the edge of blue andred and bodies where the people are.
“It’s scary. And it’s exciting. How good it feels when you’re going fast and right. It’s amazing how good it feels. And how quick you know when it’s bad, when you’ve gone off the line, when you’re wrong. That’s when it all seems dumb. Because you’re going to get hurt.”
A minute and 47 seconds with Pete Patterson, age 19, his back broken once, his legs broken twice…
To read the article in The Argus-Press by: John Vinocur, click HERE