Thursday, December 13, 2007

Graceful Madness

Today was my "day-off". Every time I've got a testing week, I'll usually have a "rest" day thrown in for good measure. Well, not really a rest day, as I'm supposed to focus instead on eating healthy foods, recovery, and relaxation. So while I'm not doing anything physical, my mind is at constant work. (Isn't that how it always is?) Rather than getting in my usual afternoon workout, I found myself journaling on the bed, with the TV on in the background. Eventually, as my writing stream of thoughts ceased to flow, I began flipping channels. Talk shows, animal shows, news programs, old movies, gingerbread challenge... and the list continues. So much stuff I've never even seen or contemplated in the past. (The Gingerbread House Contest looked really interesting - my only problem is that I would eat the parts before the final product could be displayed. I've got a weakness for gingerbread....)

I was just amazed at how many different things are on TV in one day! Some of it mindless, some of it mesmerizing, but nothing that really captured my attention.


I came across Versus.

They've always got something good on, be it cycling, ironman, archery, bull riding (8 of the most traumatic seconds EVER), among others, and today... Downhill skiing!

I've always loved watching downhill ski racing. Just something beautiful, exciting, mesmerizing about a person, zorching along at 70 mph down a snow encrusted slope.

Slalom, Downhill, Super G, Gian Slalom, Ski Jumping, Nordic Combined... all of it fun. Yes, I'll even watch biathlon and Nordic skiing (at least with the Nordic skiers, they work up the hill. The downhill skiers get a free ride up. Slightly less respected in my book... until you see the downhillers zip down at speeds faster than the speed limit on most interstates. Wow.Total Madness!)

I remember when I was younger, watching downhill Super-G with my Dad. We would get so excited! The athleticism, the daring, the GUTS these individuals possessed was truly inspiring. We would cheer for everyone, regardless of nationality or previous success. It was just fun to jump out of our seats, eyes glued to the blur-of-a-figure, zooming headlong down the mountain.

And it wasn't just me and Dad. As our voices grew louder and louder, as our cheering became more prominent, Mom and Karyna would join in. We "Whooped" and yelled, we collectively gasped when people took a tumble. We became "expert" commentators, as we adopted the announcer-speak and made bold statements and predictions of our own.

"The Austrians are looking good this year!" Dad would exclaim.

"But they don't hold a candle to the technique of the Swiss in the powdery snow," I retorted back.

"Look at how FAST he's going!" Mom would yell, "He's easily going to beat the last guy!" And sure enough, he did.

Faces, names, nationalities, ages, rankings - all became blurred as our little foursome hunkered down and watched the downhill ski racing.We were hooked, watching skier after skier, race down the hill.

And even though we hated to admit it, we were oddly drawn to the crashes. I can still remember the time that Dad and I were watching in amazement and in horror as Austria's Herman Maier (was it the 92 Albertville Olympics, or 94 Lillihammar?) crashed spectacularly on the back of his head, bounced a few times across the icy-hard surface, and then tumbled, ski over arm into the powdery white stuff and finally halted in the bright orange netting. We held our breaths. We tried to look away - but with each replay of the crash, slow-motion and real time, we were drawn back in. What the human body can endure is simply amazing, and we cheered when we learned he would be okay (to this day, he's still one of my favorite downhill skiers! In part because of his tremendous work ethic, but also because he's given so much back to his communty. Wonderful. On Alicia Parr's site, he would fall under category 7, I believe).

All of these memories, these wonderful times from my youth flooded back today as I sat and watched downhill skiing. It was some type of combined event - Downhill with Slalom at Beaver Creek, CO. I think it was a stop on the World Cup tour, but wasn't entirely positive. Remember, I still had a good book by my side, journal on the other, so in between runs, I would feverishly pick off from where I left off.

As I watched these skiers, I marveled at how effortlessly they moved. It was as though staying in a tuck at 70 mph was natural. Just "for fun" I decided to give it a try. Yes - I know that their ski boots help support their body in the "tuck" position, but man-oh-man. After 20 seconds, I could feel my quads, my glutes... and after a minute I was done.

But they made it look so easy! I thought.

And that, my friends, was the point.

Downhill skiers, careening down the hill, making their journey look effortless, or second nature, are able to do so, because they practice. They train. The rise early, day in, day out. They spend mega loads of time in the gym, lifting weights, making sure their connective tissues are strong enough to withstand the high amount of G-forces on each turn. They go to be early, the rise early, and they spend each day, regardless of season, honing and perfecting their craft.

We see a grand total of 1:20 or 2:oo of a combined run.

What we don't see, is the blood, sweat, tears, sacrifice, and years of support and preparation they took in order to reach this point. And while their off season is not spent flying down mountainsides, they put in hours at the gym, working on explosive power, plyometrics, strenght, conditioning, and endurance. We see so little of what they actually do.

I guess the same can be said about triathlon. Or music. Or other sports... I've always fancied speed skating... watching Johan Olav Koss glide gracefully around the Viking Oval at the 1994 Olympic Games was beautiful. He made it look easy; made it look as though anyone could do it. I was so motivated by him, I decided to try speedskating. It was, to my horror, very difficult, very hard, and I felt I was about to fall with every wobbly step I took (not glide, step). And remember, I've got quite a background with Nordic skiing, and figure skating... How much harder coudl speedskating really be? It looks so easy!

I was wrong, oh so wrong.

Like downhill skiers, speedskaters spend years honing thier particular craft. WHile I may have similar muscle grouping that work to my advantage (Chris Witty was an Olympian in BOTH speedskating AND raod cycling... wow), there is so much technique, so much practice that goes into the making of a top notch athlete. Heck, ANY athlete, regardless of age or rank. It takes time. It takes energy. It takes practice.

And that brings me back to the downhill stuff.

Downhill skiing, though, has always been a bit different. I'm not afraid of heights, I love Nordic skiing, and I feel like I'm a snow bunny at heart (granted I live in Florida... but going home in the winter is...cold...but more wonderful than anything else!). But no matter how easy these daredevils make this sport look, no matter how well they go over jumps, or how graceful they appear gliding from one ski to another - I can't help but think that they're a little bit mad. Crazy, if you may. 70 mph - holy cow!

I wouldn't do that...

Or would I...

Let's just say the max mph I achieved while biking down a hill was 54 mph. Can't say that I remember much of what I was thinking. Rather, my knees were shaking and I was gripping my handlebars for dear life. There was a brief vision of roadkill,looking suspiciously like a triathlete... ouch! Luckily it was over after a few seconds (a LONG few seconds). Downhill skiers are mad - but in a freeing, letting-go sort of way. They're graceful, they're beautiful, they're inspiring.

And they work years upon years for a 1:30 ski run. Next time I see downhill ski racing, I'll be sure to cheer as loudly as I can - and then be grateful that my sport doesn't involve too much adrenaline or speed.

And that's a true mark of talent; being able to make anyone think they can do something, because you make it seem effortless, easy, second nature..

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