If I ignore the bluing sky and waking city then I will be able to sleep, I thought as I arrived at the Manhattan hotel. It had been an hour's ride from the NBC Studios in Stamford, Connecticut and my nerves continued to jangle. Even if I could ignore the light, I didn't think that I could ignore the jangling. I'd just called the Men's and Women's Paralympic Downhill from Sochi. It was the last class, the men's monoskiers, my old class, that caused the jangling.
They ran on the men's Olympic course. I recognized the turns from television. Yesterday's afternoon slush had frozen into bumps, ruts, footprints and tracks. The heavily salted snow was crumbling. The steep pitches were pocked with holes and chatter marks from previous skis bouncing sideways instead of turning. The air was unpredictable and predictable air. In total, it was more of a ride than a run.
It looked like they were skiing on an avalanche -- not getting engulfed in one, but skiing on top, with a constantly changing surface. The bottom could drop out at any moment. Race training doesn't prepare them for these conditions because the racecourse is far more predictable and precise. You can attack a racecourse. This was backcountry skiing: deep powder or heavy crud, where you have to be subtle to avoid double loading the shock and getting launched. Direction changes have to happen slowly. Any sudden movements threaten to send you tumbling. If the course is an avalanche you have to work with its flow instead of against it.
After many crashes and runs where the course beat the athlete, Canada's Josh Duek, he of the first monoski back flip, broke the ice by riding the avalanche all the way to the bottom--never cutting against its flow. Amidst athletes tangling like bugs in a spider web in the protective, orange fencing and ripping their equipment to shreds in wrecks worthy of Nascar, Josh had shown that it could be done. When Tyler Walker went not only did he show that it could be done, he showed that it could be done beautifully. He jumped so full into the flow of the avalanche pulling him down the hill that it didn't seem to pull him at all. As he arced through the top turns that had tossed so many athletes upside down I said, "He's a guy who the more difficult it is the better he likes it."
I know Tyler. I know that comment to be true. His skiing also confirmed the comment, but just in that moment he hit the roller that had bounced a few of the other skiers off line--just one of the bumps in this pull down the mountain, but Tyler was carrying far more speed. Instead of bumping off the roll, he plowed straight into the face of it. The forces of greater speed had fully loaded his shock. The front of his ski immediately bent, breaking the wood core and sending him in a sickening, straight over the handlebars, half a front flip, landing on his head, tumble that all monoskiers fear. He looked dead on impact, completely lifeless.
I'm sure that Akira Kano could hear the blades of the helicopter cutting the air from his position at the start. He had to know that it was taking Tyler to the hospital. The break in the competition and the sound of the helicopter had to give his imagination license to run, but he jumped in that flow like no one other than Tyler and rode it all the way down to the top step of the podium. As a spectator the event ran the full spectrum of emotion with Duek showing everyone that it could be done, Walker representing the tragedy that was always a possibility, and Kano showing the resolve in the face of adversity that every athlete craves.
In the U.S. these Paralympics represent a huge step forward. Sponsors like BP, Liberty Mutual Insurance, BMW, Coke, Visa, Citigroup among others and the original US Paralympics sponsor, The Hartford, have introduced the athletes to the world. NBC has upped its coverage from 4 hours to 50+. For the first time we're getting to see the theater of Paralympic sport and the athletes as people that we want to be. It's not, there but for the grace of god go I. It's not, if I were in that situation I would hope to do the same thing. It's, I wish I could be like that man or woman. The Paralympians represent what's great about being a human -- jumping into the flow of the struggle and coming out victorious even when that victory was just jumping in. The Paralympic Games been amazing and will continue to be amazing, but the real mark of its success will be the days after it ends.
Two weeks ago I was in San Francisco for an event. The first night a woman joined our group at the hotel complaining about the hills. She said they were so steep that she wanted to walk up backwards. The next morning she apologized profusely to me at breakfast since I couldn't walk up the hills. I hope that in the future she doesn't feel the need to apologize. I thought the hill to the hotel was big too. It was big like the one that the Paralympics are climbing. I just hope that the Paralympics continue to climb the hill and continue to carry the rest of us with them. They've stepped into the light. The competition has always been great, but now it's even greater and the world is getting a chance to see. Hopefully, we'll recognize that the hill is steep for all of us.
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