PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Before racing in the men’s downhill Saturday, strapped into a contraption that resembles a fitted chair suspended atop a single ski, Arly Velasquez closed his eyes at the starting gate.
Surgery sidelined him for about two years. In the aftermath, he lost 25 pounds.
He vowed to return, training with ferocity, and now, here he was. It was time to give thanks.
He spoke with the universe and the mountain, which he called the love of his life, and he thought about deceased loved ones from his native Mexico: his father, his grandmother, a cherished friend. As always, he dedicated his race to his mother and sister.
Opening his eyes, Velasquez asked who he was. This moment, he told himself.
Then down he went.
Regardless of how Velasquez finished, he viewed the race as a triumph. Unlike others who either retired or did not make their team, Velasquez is among the subset of skiers here who endured a ghastly crash in the treacherous conditions at the Sochi Paralympics — or in the case of British visually impaired skier Millie Knight, on this very course at the Jeongseon Alpine Center in a test event last season — to try again, with an altered perspective on life and their sport.
They overcame injuries that, on the whole, were not as debilitating as the psychological anguish.
“Mentally, I think I’m still dealing with it because now I feel the speed,” Velasquez said. “Four years ago, I remember I was not afraid at all. Every single time, I would go for the most speed that I could. And right now I just feel the speed, I’m like, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa.'”
Of all the skiing disciplines, no event tests a competitor’s capacity for managing anxiety the way the downhill does. Skiers career down a long, steep course — they faced a vertical drop of more than 2,100 feet Saturday — at speeds that can exceed 60 mph. Crashing is inevitable.
“It’s sort of the most feared event,” said Matt Hallat, a three-time Paralympic standing skier who is now the athletic director for Canada’s para-Alpine team. “You’re always thinking about it a little bit.”
The degree of difficulty intensifies for sit-skiers like Velasquez, who, because of a spinal cord injury, has no feeling below his nipples, he said, and is at the mercy of the conditions and his machine.
The reason Stephani Victor, a Swiss sit-skier who until last year competed for the United States, chose to race the downhill was to “lay to rest some demons from Sochi,” even though her crash there came in the super-G. Losing control suddenly, Victor thundered into a safety net, fracturing a cheekbone, splitting open her chin, breaking four teeth and biting through her lip so severely that a doctor in the Paralympic Village had to reconstruct it.
“You’re looking at yourself pretty beat up, and I thought this isn’t loss — it’s an assault to my identity,” said Victor, who continues to deal with nerve pain in her face. “It affected me in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. The most painful part was the missed opportunity to race in the events that are my strongest. I couldn’t get back on snow for quite a while.”
Not until the next ski season, about nine months later. Victor is the Paralympic ambassador at the Deer Valley ski resort in Park City, Utah, and she figured the opening event there — a parallel giant slalom — around people she adored, on terrain she knew, would help ease her back.
“I was really, really afraid,” Victor said. “I had a good laugh at myself. Talk about overcoming fears. How fearless did I have to be to face the world with no legs? This should be no big deal. Why can’t I just tap into that?”
In steeling herself to ski again, Victor had trouble recreating the life-or-death intensity of her accident in 1995, when a wayward car pinned her against another vehicle, resulting in both legs being amputated. She ultimately found inspiration in the handiwork of her husband, Marcel Koenen, also her coach, who worked with a professor at the University of Pennsylvania to design a new sit-ski. Testing it for a week, Victor, 48, loved it so much that she resumed training at once, shunning alcohol, sugar and gluten to compete, she said, with athletes half her age.
“I get to be present in this moment and say, ‘I’m not in Sochi, I am not what happened to me, I have no idea what’s going to happen,’ and this is the beauty of sport,” Victor said. “It’s trusting that in the unknown you can create anything.”
Victor spoke after her training run Wednesday, before the next two were canceled because of snowfall. On Saturday, trusting the unknown, she crashed early in her race, her binding detaching from the ski, and did not finish (nor did she pass through the mixed zone, where reporters are permitted to speak with athletes, afterward).
For Knight, though, her problem was not crossing the finish line, but what happened once she did: She couldn’t stop. At the test event here, she flipped and landed on her head, suffering a concussion. Her confidence plummeted. Her dread of crashing again soared. She did not ski for six months.
“To be honest, we were snowplowing, and we were struggling with that,” said Brett Wild, who, as Knight’s guide, communicates with her via radio to lead her down the course. “She was afraid of catching an edge because that’s how she fell.” He added: “We couldn’t really see the light, you know? Are we going to get back before the Paralympics?”
Added Knight, “I really didn’t think we’d ever get back to this place.”
Knight — and Wild — worked with a sports psychologist, Kelley Fay, who met with her daily and reinforced the power of positive thinking, developing techniques to quell the fear.
“When somebody crashes and tears up a knee and misses a year, they haven’t forgotten how to ski, their body hasn’t forgotten how to ski,” Hallat said. “But that element of fear and anticipation at that point a year later is just so much greater. There’s a very real struggle there.”
When Knight completed her training run Wednesday, she skied over the same section of terrain where she crashed, and even though she did not fall, she said, it was still tough for her. She cleared that negativity from her head Saturday, when she and Wild won silver. She added a second silver in Sunday’s super-G.
“All I could think about was making sure I stayed on my feet over the line,” Knight said after the downhill, “and we did.”
Andrew Kurka, a U.S. sit-skier, did not experience the punishing doubt that plagued Knight so much as a moment of clarity. During a downhill training run in Sochi, Kurka overshot a jump, soaring about 100 feet, he said, before hurtling down the course.
“They thought I was going to die,” Kurka said.
After breaking his back, he returned to skiing in two months, then fractured his femur not long after. As fearless as Kurka professes to be, the layoff, after harrowing injuries in quick succession, forced him to examine his priorities. He briefly questioned whether he should keep racing.
“Before Sochi, I was 100 percent gung-ho, went as fast as I could, crashed in probably 90 percent of my races, but I won the other 10 percent and I won them by good margins,” Kurka said. “Now, I’m a little bit safer. I give myself a little extra room. I understand myself better, and I understand the snow better.”
He lopped nearly 6 seconds off his training run to win gold, and then added a silver in the super-G. In the downhill, Kurka finished ahead of 25 other skiers, including Velasquez, who had the misfortune of being the 91st of 92 skiers to race Saturday. When it was finally his turn, more than three hours after the first skier went out, the temperature had increased and the surface, having absorbed a cavalcade of sit-skis, was no longer packed so tightly. Velasquez deftly navigated the first three turns before sliding out on the fourth.
At the bottom of the hill, he handled his disappointment with good spirit, chatting with a few other skiers and laughing as a woman tossed him a sombrero to put on, which he did. He was thankful to have raced, and to have another chance to race — the super-G — on Sunday, when he was 17th.
“I don’t know if you are just meant to fall, but I’d rather fall this way instead of having the tumble that I had in Sochi,” Velasquez said. “I’m just grateful that I’m in one piece.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Before racing in the men’s downhill Saturday, strapped into a contraption that resembles a fitted chair suspended atop a single ski, Arly Velasquez closed his eyes at the starting gate. Read Full Story