Thrill of Victory Comes with Terror, Too

As the Olympic Games draw to a close, it's more clear than ever that winter sports are not merely exhilarating, but dangerous. From freestyle skiing to speed skating, athletes are on the edge. Luger Tony Benshoof and figure skater Evan Lysacek tell Tom Goldman how they feel about the risks.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Before the Winter Olympics are over, we want to pay homage to the heart stopping quality of these games. More than any international athletic event, the Winter Olympics bring together sports that are both exhilarating and terrifying. NPR's Tom Goldman spoke with some athletes about the risky business of competing on snow and ice.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

In the moments before they compete, Winter Olympians usually go down a final checklist: stay relaxed, stay focused, don't die. Okay, few really think that, but they'd have good cause. Go down the list of Winter sports and you see the potential for death, severe injury, dangerous exhaustion. From biathlon, severely fatigued people carrying guns, to speed skating, sharp blades and hard ice, to aerials free style skiing where athletes on skis shoot up a ramp, rise into the air, twist and somersault and then come down, which can be tricky. Here's part of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation telecast from the aerial's competition at these Olympics.

Unidentified Woman: If they land hard, they can either bite through they're tongue or they can get a concussion if they hit hard enough and mouth guards help to prevent that. Interestingly, though, the Chinese do not wear mouth guards and one of their athletes did bite through her tongue earlier on this week in training.

Mr. TONY BENSHOFF (U.S. Olympic Team, Luge): Free style aerials, I couldn't be paid to do that.

GOLDMAN: Tony Benshoff of the U.S. finished fourth in the men's Olympic luge competition.

BENSHOFF: I can hardly do a back flip off of a diving board into a pool, I mean, let alone strap skis on my body and do triples at sixty feet in the air. I mean, that's, I would absolutely kill myself. I might as well just jump off a bridge.

GOLDMAN: The ironic things is, may would say jumping off a bridge is exactly what Tony Benshoff does for a living, although he's on his back. He rockets down an icy luge track at 90 miles per hour and one can imagine all of the potential hazards. Benshoff has been relatively lucky. He's had some fractured bones, a dislocated finger, but nothing major. Still, he has his moments at the beginning of races when he thinks, this is crazy, I could get hurt.

BENSHOFF: But I also think, I've been doing this for a long time, I'm one of the best in the world, and you have to have confidence in your ability, and I think that's what makes a lot of athletes continue to do what they do is they just have that capacity to say I am good enough to do this safely.

GOLDMAN: That's the practical approach to risk: relying on skills and many years of training. But also, there's a courage, a crazy courage, some would say, unique to Winter Olympians. Here's American figure skater Evan Lysacek.

Mr. EVAN LYSACEK (U.S. Olympic Team, Figure Skating): I see that same thing with the guys waiting to go off the ski jump is they sit there and they sit there and then there's just a second and a look comes over them and they're ready to go and they know that, no matter what, they're going to land on their feet and they're gonna fly far enough to make it. I think that we all just have this certain level of fearlessness where you say, you know, I'm doing it, I'm going down that hill.

GOLDMAN: In his sport, Lysacek leaps into the air and lands on a blade a quarter of an inch thick. Or tries to land. He's had concussions, a debilitating stress fracture in his hip, sprains, dislocations. But his fearlessness ends when he considers the top of a downhill ski run.

Mr. LYSACEK: We'd sit down on our butt and start crying on top and say someone get me down from here. But they point their skis straight down and go for it.

GOLDMAN: The danger in Winter Olympic sports pretty much ends at the curling venue. That's where competitors slide large stones down a sheet of ice. It's a sport that, while not exactly the place for thrill seekers, still can get participants riled up. Check out the Canadian men's team, in a match here at the games.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Unidentified man #1: Should be five.

Unidentified man #2: Seven!

Unidentified man #1: Oh! Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow!

Unidentified man #2: Seven!

Unidentified man #1: Ugh! Ugh!

Unidentified man #2: Seven.

Unidentified man #3: Eight.

Unidentified man #2: Seven.

Unidentified man #4: Bouncing a little?

Unidentified man #3: Eight.

Unidentified man #1: Wow, wow, don't touch it, don't touch it.

Unidentified man #3: We're bouncing, bouncing, bouncing.

Unidentified man #1: Don't touch it. No, no, no, no.

GOLDMAN: American curler Maureen Brunt acknowledges no on in her sport is going to get badly hurt.

Ms. MAUREEN BRUNT (U.S. Olympic Team, Curling): But Curling just is as physically demanding. Where you're not only out there but you're sweeping pretty hard most of the time and it's two and a half hours long. Not to mention the mental parts, where your brain gets very tired, too.

GOLDMAN: Nice try, Maureen, but really, it's not necessary. After two weeks of down-hillers and ski-jumpers and aerialists risking life and limb, the Winter Olympics have needed a nice, safe place to go.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Turin.

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