U.S. downhillers Bennett, Ganong, Cochran-Siegle to tempt fate and physics in Yanqing

Posted at 12:56 PM, Feb 03, 2022

Sports are awash in suppressed fears, ever-present but denied; overwhelming but compartmentalized. Human frailties bumping up against the veneer of superhuman toughness expected from athletes. Simone Biles cracked open a window for the world to experience this reality last summer at the Olympics in Tokyo. After she withdrew from the women’s all-around gymnastics competition and three subsequent apparatus events, she was both effusively praised and (mostly) anonymously ridiculed. Her openness was revelatory and important, an evolutionary moment in sports’ connection to the broader world. She spoke the quiet part out loud: There is no opponent more significant than the fear – both physical and psychological -- that lives inside an athlete’s mind.

It could be the wide receiver who glides across the middle of a defense, hopelessly vulnerable, even as football dutifully tries to civilize itself. It could be a race car driver, diving into asphalt turns at chilling speeds, seat-belted into a vehicle that is little more than an engine wrapped in composites and sponsor decals. It could be the golfer facing down a not-quite-short putt with life-changing money at stake. It could be every hitter who stands 60 feet, six inches from a pitcher who throws fastballs 100 miles per hour. It could be anywhere, and it is everywhere.

Not least, fear is a foundational component of the downhill event in alpine ski racing, where danger is both manifested by the rules (fastest to the bottom wins, all out) and purified by the dynamic skill of the skiers and the exasperating inability of video to sufficiently convey the peril of the task. (In much the same way, NFL fans have little concept of the violence in the game, which can only be understood in person, in relatively close proximity).  The downhill is a harrowing endeavor: Two minutes hurtling from the top of a mountain on ``snow’’ that more closely resembles a frozen pond than a pile of powder, at speeds exceeding 90 miles per hour while wearing less equipment than a high school quarterback. Here there is no denying fear in the downhill, only finding a place for it.

SEE MORE: Winter Olympics 101: Basics of Alpine Skiing

Sometimes that place is right in the soul, in every minute not spent actually racing.

I’m scared every day. Fear is like, a presence, it’s there all the time. I don’t think I’m ever not, feeling afraid.

U.S. downhiller Bryce Bennett

Bennett, 29, is one of three U.S. skiers --  along with Travis Ganong, 33; and Ryan Cochran-Siegle, 29 -- who will compete in the men’s Olympic downhill at the Yanqing Alpine Center (Saturday night at 10 p.m. EST). It is a singularly unusual competition. Prior to Thursday morning’s first training run (of three), no skier in the world had raced or trained on the Olympic hill – nicknamed "The Rock’' because it carves a serpentine path through craggy, snowless peaks. (The snow on the course is all man-made). There is nothing quite like mystery to help level the field.

SEE MORE: Alpine Skiing 101: Venue

All three U.S. downhillers are medal outsiders in China, but over the long continuum of ski racing history, U.S. downhillers are usually outsiders in global championships. The Olympics have been particularly fallow; Americans have won only three medals – golds by Bill Johnson in Sarajevo in 1984 and Tommy Moe 10 years later in Lillehammer (both surprises); and a bronze by Bode Miller in Vancouver in 2010 (more overdue than surprising). The World Championships have been even more sparse; Miller’s title in 2005 in Bormio is the only U.S. gold.

But the unfamiliarity of the hill is a rare wild card in the World Cup ski racing community, where most seasons are circus-like, week-by-week visits to familiar mountains: Beaver Creek, Val Gardena, Bormio, Wengen, Kitzbuhel. There are few secrets; outsiders rarely win.

Bennett became an exception when he took first place at the Dec. 18 downhill in Val Gardena, Italy, his first World Cup victory in 107 starts, and the first by an American since Ganong won in Garmisch five years ago in January of 2017. That win makes Bennett the most intriguing of the three American racers. Nothing new there: Bennett has been intriguing since his first World Cup race in 2014 as a free-spirited, 6-foot-7 racer, as he skied from the 57th starting position to an unheard-of sixth-place finish in a December 2015 race (also at Val Gardena, a trend). His career has been, first, a struggle to find equipment that fits such a tall racer, and next, a struggle to find his confidence in a dangerous and intricate sport. Appropriately, Bennett calls his entire career a ``strugglefest,’’ a delightfully functional word.

SEE MORE: Bryce Bennett ends U.S. men’s downhill victory drought

But there has been progress. "I’m getting older,’’ Bennett said during a late-January interview from Switzerland.

I’m really starting to see the entire picture more and how to optimize what I’ve learned. Even in that win, I was figuring things out, learning things. I really have a lot of confidence

Bryce Bennett

Marco Sullivan, a four-time Olympian from the same powder-rich North Lake Tahoe region as Bennett (both are from Truckee, California, as is Daron Rahlves, another four-time Olympian who also won in Kitzbuhel and a super-G world championship), has known Bennett since Bennett was a junior racer. "Bryce is really in the sweet spot for a downhill skier, late 20s, early 30s,’’ says Sullivan. "It takes a few years to figure out the classic hills, and then you see guys breaking out.’’ (To wit, Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, 29, has become the dominant speed racer on the circuit only in the last two seasons, in his sixth and seventh seasons on the World Cup).

Bennett fought from the beginning to find equipment that would fit his physique, and more specifically, his size. World Cup downhill skis are nearly-uniform size for all skiers, but while boots molds are limited, feet are different. "My father can tell so many stories,’’ says Bennett, “Where coaches said, 'He’s too tall and his feet are too big. No chance.' And sure, I look at these other racers who are 5-10, 5-11, with a size 10 shoe, and I think this sport would be so easy. But I don’t have that.” (Kilde is 5-11 and Rahlves is 5-10, for instance, but Miler is 6-2. Which is not even close to 6-7).

Five years ago, Bennett signed with Fischer for skis and boots, and the company has worked effectively to fit their equipment to fit his body. “Obviously, every company works hard,’’ says Bennett. "Fischer has put a lot of time and support behind me.” (The battle is never complete; Bennett has had boot setup issues as recent as this season). There’s also no fix for exposing a 79-inch body to the wind. "He’s a like a giant flag up there,’’ says Sullivan. But that coin has two sides: Bennett is big enough to absorb terrain changes (bumps, rolls, sidehills) that might slow other racers, and "The Rock" has terrain. It also has a lot of wind, which could help or hurt any individual skier, depending on the timing of a big gust, but Bennett more than most, in either direction. “Somethings we can’t control,” says Bennett.

The scouting report on Bennett is that his size and tuck make him especially effective on course with fewer technical turns and with more gliding; Val Gardena and Wengen, where Bennett finished 7th during a January downhill, are such courses. Bormio and Kitzbuhel are not. NBC analyst Ted Ligety, who won two Olympic gold medals and five world championships in giant slalom, super-G, and combined, said that Bennett, "just needs to work on the technical side of things a little more, by skiing more GS (giant slalom) to dial that in. He’s always going to be pretty good on the more moderate courses, and with that big body, he can absorb terrain.”

The question becomes: What type of course is "The Rock?" It seems to trend toward gnarly, rather than moderate. "It’s not easy, a lot of gates,’’ said veteran Dominik Paris of Italy.

"Nearly every section is difficult,’’ said Vincent Kreichmayr of Austria. "Not many bumps."

If this bodes poorly for Bennett – and on the surface, it might – it’s also worth measuring larger themes. Bennett’s trip to alpine relevance has been not just physical or technical, but emotional and intellectual. With learning comes heightened expectation; with a taste of victory comes hunger for more. "A few years ago,’’ says Bennett, “Top 10 was like the coolest thing in the world. That doesn’t interest me anymore. So your perspective changes. But this is a tough sport, and when that perspective changes, it becomes even more difficult.” So he is a natural athlete.

There’s a lot of humility involved. You can be the best guy in the world, and you make one little mistake and you’re in the netting and getting a helicopter ride to a hospital in a foreign country. You’ve got to respect the mountain.

Bryce Bennett

All of this, as the downhill approaches, brings us back to fear, the racers’ companion, each processing in his or her own way. “Any downhill skier (that) tells you he’s not scared, he’s 100% lying,” says Bennett. “Of course once you kick out of the start, that fear is instantly gone, way gone, and you just have this heightened awareness, heightened sense, heightened focus. Which I try to use. But all day before the race? I try to hold onto that anxiety. That’s my comfy place.’’

Bennett pauses briefly. "Probably unhealthy.”