“Scott Macartney’s Comeback”
by Jennifer Kahn
Outside, November 2009
Fearless: What really happens when an elite skier loses his edge?
Two years ago, Olympic men’s downhill champion Antoine Deneriaz was at the top of his game. His aggressive descents over a treacherous course at Turin had shut down the competition, which included Hermann Maier and Daron Rahlves. It seemed like the start of an extraordinary World Cup career.
In fact, it was almost the end. Not long after the Olympics, Deneriaz lost control during a race in Sweden and crashed violently, sustaining a concussion and a badly bruised thigh. As race wipe outs go, the fall was serious but not extraordinary; the previous year, Deneriaz had fared worse, severing most of the ligaments in his left knee on a jump — and still recovered to win gold at Turin. Gilles Brenier, the French team coach, confidently predicted a strong coming season.
Instead, the team’s star downhiller faltered. Although Deneriaz’s injuries healed quickly, he remained anxious, unable to shake vivid memories of the crash. The low point came in December, shortly after World Cup champion Aksel Svindal crashed badly on a training run in Vail. Racing the same course a few days later, Deneriaz performed poorly, ultimately placing 82nd. He announced his retirement hours later. “Something was broken that day in Sweden,” Gilles Brenier observed sadly. “Something from which Antoine could not recover.”
What’s remarkable about the case of Antoine Deneriaz is not just that he lost his nerve, but how unexpectedly it happened. Downhill racers can seem almost eerie in their resiliency. Hermann Maier famously came back to win two gold medals in Nagano just days after a 70-mph wreck that seemed destined to end his career. After a horrifying collision shattered her femur, Picabo Street watched videos of her own crash obsessively, and then claimed to forget about it. Like Maier and Street, Deneriaz was a top competitor for years, untroubled by collisions and seemingly fearless. So what happened to him this time?
There’s a complicated story in the answer to this question. For every athlete that returns to winning form after a crash, there are dozens who never quite shake their demons. The experience is so common that Jesse Hunt, the USOC’s Alpine director, has a term for it — “The Fear” — and it afflicts elite gymnasts, cyclists, and NASCAR drivers as readily as skiers. What makes Deneriaz unusual is the degree to which he has been open about his psychological battle. Most racers who lose their nerve — and the downhill circuit is full of them — simply vanish.
I’d like to take a look at this war on terror from the inside. Besides talking with Deneriaz, Street, and others, I have the option of visiting with Jonny Law, the freeskier who nearly died last year after miscalculating the steepness of an escape ridge on an unstable slope in Alaska’s Chugach mountains. Intent on returning to the sport, Law has begun working with a sports psychologist in Canada who specializes in traumatic recovery.
US Alpine coach Phil McNichol has also given me permission to tag along to a race with Dane Spencer, the 2002 Olympic slalom prodigy who narrowly escaped quadriplegia after breaking his back in a horrendous wipeout in 2006. Spencer is back on the circuit this year, but the jury is still out on whether he can become the fearless fast-course skier he once was. I’ve talked with Spencer, and he’s a candid guy; hanging out with him in the “no fear” clubhouse that defines World Cup racing would be a stark look at what he faces when he steps in the gate.
There’s plenty of interesting stuff to touch on here, including what experts say makes one crash more mentally scarring than another (it’s not just the extent of the injury), the prospect that some of us are naturally more vulnerable to “athletic PTSD,” and experimental drugs that supposedly enhance the circuits that extinguish traumatic memories. In the end, though, this remains a story about falling down and getting back up: something any athlete (and indeed, any one of us) can relate to.