The trouble started somewhere in the middle of a switch triple rodeo. Or maybe an instant before that, as Gus Kenworthy launched himself, spinning, twisting, off the jump.
The American halfpipe and slopestyle skier tried to complete his midair trick but slammed down with a thud. Curled into a fetal position, clutching his chest, he slid 20 yards before coming to a stop.
“Broke my sternum,” he says, recounting his fall at last year’s X Games Aspen like it was no big deal. “I’ve been hurt before.”
Broken legs. A broken collarbone. Wrist injuries. At 22 years old, the world-class free skier knows that wipeouts happen and snow can be as unforgiving as concrete.
Which makes the Winter Olympics a dangerous proposition.
“The injuries are real and they for sure hurt,” he says. “But it’s one of the inherent risks.”
Skiers careen down the mountainside. Bobsledders scream along a frozen track. Snowboarders vault themselves high into the air.
The athletes at the 2014 Sochi Games will face a simple risk-reward scenario: If things go right, they might walk away with a gold medal; if things go wrong, they might not walk away at all.
“If you’re not scaring yourself,” halfpipe snowboarder Scotty Lago says, “you’re not doing it right.”
Hours before the opening ceremony at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, a luger from the former Soviet republic of Georgia was taking a practice run when he flew off the track and smashed into a post.
Nodar Kumaritashvili became the fourth fatality in the history of the Winter Games.
“We’re a really small community,” American luger Julia Clukey says. “It was really hard for all of us.”
Another luger died in 1964. That same year, a skier ran into a tree; in 1992, a skier hit a grooming vehicle.
The addition of more and more extreme sports to the Olympic program has increased the risk of injury.
A 2010 study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that nearly 300 athletes were hurt in Vancouver. And that doesn’t include all the skiers, sliders and snowboarders who suffered major falls while preparing for the Games.
Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke died in a 2012 training accident. Last week, three-time Olympic champion Thomas Morgenstern lost control during a practice ski jump, fell hard and suffered skull injuries.
In an effort to minimize out-of-competition injuries, snowboarders learn tricks on trampolines. At a training center in Utah, aerialists jump off carpeted ramps and land in a pool, but even that can be dicey.
Dylan Ferguson came down awkwardly one day and knocked himself unconscious.
“I was in the water, sort of floating there with my life jacket,” he says. “Luckily, my teammates brought me to the side.”
Not everyone has a safe way to practice. Downhill racers must go full-speed, and ski jumpers must take flight. Even when things go right, it can be painful.
“If it’s really far,” American jumper Jessica Jerome says, “I’m thinking about how much my knees are going to hurt when I land.”
Duck your head. Grab hold.
When a bobsled flips over, the riders try to stay inside, even if it means getting trapped against the ice, the friction burning through their suits.
“It’s your safest place,” says Jazmine Fenlator, an American pilot. “That’s the name of the game.”
Veterans of the sport try to warn newcomers. Fenlator heard so many horror stories when she began racing on ice, it got to the point where she welcomed her first wipeout.
“The longer your career goes without a crash,” she says, “the more nerve-racking it can become.”
If training can be risky, competition only ups the ante. Olympians will try anything to shave .01 of a second off their time or add an extra spin for the judges.
American downhill star Lindsey Vonn will miss the Sochi Games after reinjuring her knee in a World Cup race last month. The reigning men’s figure skating champion, Evan Lysacek, will skip the Games because of a hip injury.
Bobsled ranks among the most dangerous events, along with free skiing, hockey and short-track speedskating, according to the British study. Heads, spines and knees take the hardest beating.
Winter athletes tend to recount their wipeouts in clinical terms, calmly describing torn ligaments and ruptured spleens. That’s how Fenlator talks about crashing.
When everything grinds to a halt, she says, you check for blood and broken bones. And after that?
“You get back in your sled,” she says. “You go right back down.”
Don’t get the wrong idea. It can be scary up on the mountain, especially when the wind blows hard and heavy storms limit visibility.
“Sometimes there will be talk about if it’s dangerous and sketchy,” Alpine skier Alice McKennis says. “You might hope the competition gets canceled.”
Elite athletes have ways of dealing with fear.
Some downhill racers say they ignore the brightly colored crash fencing on either side of the run. Snowboarders think of their tricks as “calculated” risks.
Ask ski jumper Lindsey Van about the perils of her sport and she adroitly shifts the focus.
“I’m scared to drive in the snow,” she says. “Look at all the crazies out there.”
Besides, danger has its upside for athletes who crave the rush that comes with pushing the edge of the envelope. Van calls it an “addiction” and Alpine skier Travis Ganong says he cannot find that kind of thrill anywhere else.
Kenworthy loves his sport so much that he returned to competition soon after his X Games fall, jumping despite his cracked sternum.
Like other athletes hoping to be in Russia next month, the free skier will look forward to a bit of risk.
“I don’t think we’re hillbillies or anything, but we’re all adrenaline junkies,” he says. “We want to scare ourselves.”