Fear is along for the Ride
Fear is along for the ride
X Games stars deal with demons
By Jason Blevins
The Denver Post
Posted: 01/25/2009 12:30:00 AM MST
ASPEN — Sometimes, when CR Johnson’s skis leave a cliff and he’s floating, a dark angst seizes him.
“I brace for impact and go into survival mode. I think, ‘Whatever happens, just live,’ ” the 25-year-old Californian said at the Winter X Games. “From an athlete’s perspective, you know that injury is part of the sport, and it’s in the back of your head.
“But then, once you get hurt doing it, you are like, ‘Whoa, this is a reality.’ Then you actually have fear. Fear is restricting.”
In December 2005, Johnson sustained a brain injury after being struck by an airborne skier during a film shoot at the Brighton ski area in Utah. Doctors told him he likely would never walk again, let alone ski.
Johnson has returned to starring in ski films but no longer competes at the X Games. Like most snowsports athletes, he wrestles daily with fear. Where most people view fear as a message to slow down down or back away, athletes such as Johnson and the gravity-dissing X Games competitors have learned to banish fear, or at least harness it into some kind of bigger, better and stronger-than-ever energy.
“With any competitor, you are always going to get that early on, and it’s something that you become comfortable with the longer you do it,” said Minnesota snowmobiler Levi LaVallee, who pulled off a double backflip Friday but fell on the landing. “I’ve been racing my sled forever and ever and I’m able to backdoor that fear and say, ‘Hey, this is the same feeling you always get.’ I just focus on what I need to accomplish.”
How action sports athletes address fear — especially when they are facing the possibility of serious injury, or worse, as they defy gravity — is a critical element in their success. Even though a catastrophic injury is always a possibility, many athletes’ fears are not the most obvious.
The racer who hits 80 mph on sheer ice is afraid of heights. The snowboarder who soars 20 feet above rock-hard snow is afraid of spiders. Another is afraid of sharks.
Here is a sampling of X Games athletes, what they fear and how they confront their demons:
Kees-Jan van der Klooster. The 2008 monocross gold medalist from the Netherlands is afraid of the dense collection of jumps — known as whoop-dee-dos — on the skiercross and monocross course.
“It is pretty hard with a sit-ski to absorb the whoop-dees. Actually it isn’t even possible. . . . But it’s a healthy scared. It makes you use your brains and not get too scared.”
Daron Rahlves. The winner of eight World Cup races as a ski racer is considered the fastest American on skis. Today he is eyeing another run at Olympic glory, but this time as a skicross racer. His fear is flubbing.
“I need that big challenge: When you are not really sure of the outcome, you know you can pull it off but you are never going to know until you try and give it a shot,” said the 35-year-old father of two. “I’m most scared of heights. That’s the one thing that really freaks me out.
“But when I’m skiing, I just want the opportunity to get out there and give it everything I’ve got. It’s good to be getting scared. It wakes you up.”
Travis Rice. The backcountry master from Jackson, Wyo., also ranks as one of snowboarding’s top tricksters, able to spin and stomp huge airs on man-made kickers and powdery cliffs with equal aplomb.
“Fear is your friend. Anybody who is fearless is going to fall off the wagon pretty quick,” the 25-year-old said. “Fear is there for a reason. The toughest part is carrying through with confidence.
“Everything is mental confidence, and fear works to erode that confidence. As far as anything irrational, you ever see that ‘Superman’ movie where they lock that guy in a safe? That would freak me out. That would really freak me out.”
Gretchen Bleiler. An innovator on her snowboard, the Aspen 27-year-old dominates the superpipe and deep powder alike, establishing her as one of her sport’s pioneers. During her second run in Friday night’s superpipe finals, Bleiler left the silenced crowd shaking after a rare yet brutal wreck that saw her backflipping down the 22-foot wall of the superpipe.
“Being a professional snowboarder, I think it is sort of my job every single day I’m on the mountain to scare myself. That means I’m pushing myself past my comfort zone and trying to get better for myself and for my sport,” she said. “Fear is something you deal with on a daily basis. It doesn’t get any easier, but you learn how to deal with it better.
“When I’m scared, I do my homework and know what I need to do. When you push past it, it’s one of the best feelings you can have and it’s one of the reasons I love snowboarding.”
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374 or firstname.lastname@example.org