By ZACH DUNDAS
What Eric Bergoust does for a living is patently abnormal.
He straps skis to his feet, wraps a helmet around his brain, then slips down a near-vertical hill, parabolas up a facing hill of similiar near-vert-ness. He's in the air then, in way most people hope never to be, 50 or 60 feet up and feeling gravity hard. He flips, he twists, he lands, he lives. Some judges, mainly foreigners, issue a score.
This month in Japan, he'll try to do this for Olympic gold.
Bergoust, a 27-year-old Missoulian with radical sideburns, is a freestyle skier -- more particularly, an aerialist. The aerials are a human missile derby, one of the X-treme arriviste sports just now joining the winter games' more traditional freeze-offs.
When the first Olympic medals in aerials were handed out in Lillehammer in 1994, Bergoust looked on from the crowd, having finished seventh. Now, as he sits atop the World Cup standings, he carries the Republic of Montana's hopes for Olympic hot sake on his shoulders, facing a rabble of competition from Europe and the good old U. S. of A.
While shagging some pre-Nagano hang-out time in Park City, Utah, he'd have you believe he's cool about the whole thing.
"A lot of times in my career, I've competed in the 'biggest event of my life,'" he says. "For 10 years, I've had a lot of opportunities to take it up a level, so this is just another step in a series of steps I've been taking for a decade. I think I'm well-prepared."
Still, he sums up his chances dispassionately and cautiously. On first impression, he seems possessed of humility surprising for a snow jock on top of the world. In Lillehammer, he notes, an unheralded Swiss came from nowhere to steal the gold, and it's been an inconsistent year on the pro circuit. The old sports clichés -- anyone on any given day, etc. -- ring true for the Nagano aerials, he says.
Bergoust compares aerials to diving, another sport in which competitors are judged on takeoff, form and landing, and in which minute errors in mechanics and quirks of fate can catapult underdogs to the top.
"This is an individual sport," he says. "I like that. If I screw up, I pay for it; if I do well, I reap all the rewards. You're not playing directly against anybody, so there are a couple of different ways you can approach it mentally. Some people get inspired by watching everyone else jump, others just ignore everything until they're up.
"I've tried both ways and done both well and poorly with both, so I'm not sure what I'll do this time. I'm still figuring it out."
While diving might be an easy Olympic analogue for aerials, Bergoust says the competitors' spirit has more in common with that of fellow renegade sports extremists.
"I think we all share a real love for the sport itself. It's like surfing or skateboarding in that way; I'm watching a skateboarding video right now, and I just noticed the camaraderie on the half-pipe. It's the same for us -- when somebody does well, everyone's happy for them. It's one of the greatest things there is.
"There used to be a couple of French guys who'd act hard and try to intimidate people, but I always thought, well, if they're trying to intimidate me, that must mean they're worried about me. I don't try to do that, because that's not how I want to spend my life. Life is more than that. I don't want to spend 20 years of my life acting that way."
While Bergoust is definitely down with the kick-back outlook associated with the so-called "new sports" slowly being sucked into the Olympic whirlpool, it's plain that he also wants to be taken seriously. Some nuevo-athletes have complained that Olympic validation will housebreak events once known for their daring, out-of-bounds nature. Bergoust is sympathetic, but doesn't agree.
"I can see why a snowboarder might feel that way, because that's more of an art, almost," he says. "In aerials, it's all form. If I wanted to be an artist, I'd be a musician. What I want to do is take this sport as far as I can take it, and being in the Olympics will bring so much more into the sport in the way of money, coaching, exposure, everything. It gives me the chances to do better flips and twists than anybody else. That's why I'm happy and proud to be in it."
Bergoust says that his sport and his own abilities have grown in parallel. So evenly, in fact, that he can't tell whether aerials have grown 100-fold or if he's just getting 100 times the personal attention he got in Lillehammer. The media still doesn't quite know how to cover his event, he says, but they're learning.
And as for the gold?
"Anything that big will change anyone," he says. "You always hear people say, for example, that if they win the lottery it's not going to change them. Well, that's just not true. Every single little thing changes you in life.
"There's nothing wrong with change. By doing well, I'd just be taking another step in developing myself, getting opportunities for more coaching, more training. That's what it's all about."
Eric Bergoust: a face that's launched a thousand flips Photo by Mark D. Maziarz.
By DANIEL ROBERTS
For world-class mogul skier Donovan Power, a 20-year-old Missoula powder prodigy, couch time will be a poor substitute for hang time this year after a knee injury extinguished his ski season and his chance for a trip to the Nagano Olympics.
How does Power remember the spill that sidelined him to the sofa?
"Well, once I woke up it was kind of like... ow. Then I was just pissed, for sure. I knew it was over," he says.
Power, understates his disappointment and plays it cool, but it's difficult for a man who has skied since he was three to wholly ignore the devastating knee injury that cut short his first big season -- an Olympic season.
"It's going to be weird to watch it on TV, not a lot of fun," Power says, avoiding eye contact. "I'd sure rather be in Nagano than stuck here."
A U.S. Ski Team member, Power was ranked third on the moguls squad when he blew out his right knee in only the second stop in the World Cup circuit. Four team members earned tickets to Japan and Power says there was a good chance that he would have gotten one of those seats if he had only stayed healthy.
"I wouldn't say it was definite that I was going, that wouldn't be fair to the other guys," Power says, assessing his chances for Olympic inclusion. "But the way things were going, it looked good. I was third and they ended up taking four."
In Tignes, France, the season's first World Cup contest, Power finished 20th in moguls singles and ninth in the duals -- results that he described as "pretty good."
But in La Plagne, France, in just his third World Cup run, Power hit a mogul at an odd angle, crossed his skis, hyper-extended his right leg and went down for the count.
Power morbidly reenacts the moment with two coffee cups, a ski cap and his hand.
"It was pretty icy, I hit it, got crossed-up and just wrecked head-first into the next mogul. Bam... and I was knocked out," he says with a grimace.
When Power came to, he was surrounded by half-a-dozen cigarette smoking French ski patrol members with very concerned looks. He knew, immediately, that he had torn his anterior-cruciate ligament in his right leg -- a common ski injury.
"I'd say 90 percent of the skiers on the team have been through this and they've all come back. I've got to sit around for a while, but I'll be right back at it in the middle of June," Power says. "The knee will probably be stronger when I get back to the World Cup next year."
Power says two screws and a tendon graft now keep his parts and pieces together and describes, in great detail, exactly what his doctors did.
The six-inch, zipper-like scar will forever be a reminder of a lost season and, perhaps, a lost Olympics. But Power doesn't see it that way and isn't nearly as disappointed as one would think. And for the time being, he's getting at least a little pleasure in making a journalist with a weak stomach a little squeamish.
You see, he's got a stack of surgery pictures.
Power has been off the planks for six weeks, already the longest break since he was a teenager, and he's got five more months to go.
"I'm bored," he says, summing-up his situation with great concision. "My friends are telling me ski stories and all I get to do is rehab."
Power will be spending two hours a day, three days a week in the rehab gym. When he's not there he'll be taking classes at the University of Montana where his father is an economics professor.
"This is the first and hopefully last time I'll be in school. I'd rather ski moguls than go to classes," he says. "But it's giving me something to do."
Going to the Olympics has al-ways been a dream for Power, but says he now looks at it as just another competition. In a way, he says, he looked forward even more to a full World Cup season.
Power says his plan now is to ski World Cup until at least the 2002 games in Salt Lake City. He says that although much more money could be made in the professional circuit he has to have the name first. He'd like to make a name for himself in the World Cup and says he doesn't want to miss the trip to Utah -- something that would happen if he turned pro.
"The Olympics have been a dream since forever, so I'm bummed," he says, contemplating his future. "But the next Olympics will mean so much more because of this. I'm really just looking to get back on skis again... that's it."
Rad dude Donovan Power goes under the knife.
By NICK DAVIS
So you're a hard-core sports fan, someone who yearns to replace the big fat hole in your life with the timeless tradition of watching other people do great things in a meaningful context. You've got the post-Super Bowl blues, and last weekend's Pro Bowl was like a pitiful half-dose of methadone to a heroin addict facing a long menu of cold turkey.
But there's a glimmer of hope on your otherwise blackened horizon, for it won't be long before the Grandest of Games begins.
These are the Winter Olympics, the Unsullied Games, featuring events and competitors as pure as the driven snow beneath their registered, trademarked footwear. Gone, thankfully, is the crass commercialism of the summer games -- as of yet, no official toenail clipper has surfaced for Nagano.
This isn't to say that the winter games have completely retained their founding concept of virginal amateurism, though. The addition of snowboarding, a comparative babe in the woods when considering the storied origins of most events, points to a concerted effort to market these games to the X generation. And the NHL's decision to take a breather so its marquee stars can take the world stage seems to be a choice based on marketing as much as the spirit of competition.
The U.S. team, surprisingly, took the first World Cup in hockey last year, upsetting the favored Canadians. Word is our neighbors to the north are a bit red-faced about that turn of events, and have travelled to Nagano with revenge in mind. Dissension may be a factor among the Canucks, though, who inexplicably do not count 12-time All-Star and two-time NHL MVP Mark Messier among their ranks.
The wider rink and expanded area behind the nets of international hockey emphasizes creative playmaking over the NHL's cruise-'em-and bruise-'em style of play, so it should be interesting to watch how the thugs adapt.
Of course, it may be difficult to track hockey progress on CBS, because most of the prime time competitors on ice will be wearing tutus, gauzy dresses and spandex.
Yes, once again the winter games will be a showcase for figure skating which, although a sport of great beauty and precision, can be seen with sometimes depressing regularity throughout the winter season. A welcome bit of sheer athleticism will come from American Michael Weiss, who barely missed a ballsy quadruple lutz in a recent competition and has vowed to try it again in Nagano, raising the bar for the other lycra'd milquetoasts who think that pretty spins and fancy hip-shaking will be sufficient to gain gold.
Battles on the ice rink aside, these Olympics promise a healthy supply of unheralded athletes and unanswered questions ranging from the sublime to the surreal.
On the sublime side, U.S. skiers Picabo Street and Tommy Moe will try to resurrect their injury-hampered careers by denting the armor of the German women and Austrian men, who have had a stranglehold on recent World Cup events. Why is this? Are the mountains better in Eastern Europe? Is the skiing-talent gene pool that much stronger among these relatively small countries? Why aren't Americans kicking ass and taking names on the slopes? It's time to put up or shut up for U.S. ski bums, if they want to be regarded as more than glorified slacker-dudes.
Another area of inexplicable American inferiority lies on the sledding tracks, where U.S. bobsledders and lugers have a history of butt-whuppings at the hands of the damn Europeans. But this year could finally bring success for Americans in both events. Brian Shimer, the Heartbreak Kid of Bobsled (.02 seconds from a medal in '88, a disqualification in Lillehammer), has been a blur in recent races on his new sled designed by NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine and looks to challenge the favorites from Germany and Italy.
As for surreality, one need look no further than the cross-country ski events, which will feature Kenyan Philip Boit. Kenyans have long been a force on the world endurance-running scene, and someone obviously wanted to see what long limbs and big lungs could do attached to long boards instead of running shoes. Boit had never seen snow until two years ago, when he arrived in Finland to begin training. Looks like Eddie the Eagle and the Jamican Bobsled team will have to make room in the Olympics Hall of Lovable Obscurity.
And speaking of obscure, the U.S. actually has a chance of medaling in curling, a bizarre hybrid of ice-bound shuffleboard and horseshoes. You'll be reassured to know that both the men's and women's team hail from Wisconsin, where sedentary sports like bowling -- and, apparently, sliding a 42 lb. chunk of granite along a freshly-swept lane of ice -- are honed to perfection.
So sit back, click on the tube, grab a beverage and forget about the worthlessness of your petty life. It won't be long before baseball's boys of summer return to help us spit and scratch our way through the NFL's off-season.
NFL addicts should be well-trained for high endurance Olympic viewing. Photo by Jeff Powers.