The Winter Olympics are a carnival of danger, a spectacle of speed and slick surfaces, powered mostly by the undefeated force of gravity.
Skiers hurtle themselves down mountains faster than cars drive on highways. Sliders ride high-speed sleds down a twisting chute of ice. Ski jumpers soar great distances through the air, and snowboarders and freestyle skiers flip and spin in the sky and hope for a safe landing.
The next wipeout always feels moments away.
The athletes who perform these daring feats are not crazy. They are not reckless. But they do have one thing in common that might surprise those of us who watch.
They are scared. Every one of them.
“When you’re going as fast as we are,” American downhill ski racer Breezy Johnson said, “anywhere on the course can turn into an injury trap, if not a death trap, really quick.”
In January, Johnson, a gold-medal favorite, was injured in a crash and announced that she was out of the Olympics.
The New York Times interviewed three dozen Winter Olympians and others with ties to the most extreme sports at the Games. We wanted to dive deep on the mental side of danger.
The first question: Does fear play a role in your sport?
John Branch, New York Times reporter The first general question that we’ll start with is just
John Branch, New York Times reporter simply: Does fear play a role in your sport?
Lloyd Wallace, Aerials, Britain The short answer is yes.
Ryan Cochran-Siegle, Alpine skiing, United States Yeah, definitely.
Red Gerard, Snowboard (slopestyle, big air), United States Yeah.
Alice Merryweather, Alpine skiing, United States Absolutely.
Erik Arvidsson, Alpine skiing, United States Yes.
Shauna Rohbock, Bobsled, retired, United States Yeah, does the fear play a role in the sport?
Leon Vockensperger, Snowboard (slopestyle, big air), Germany Oh, I can, I can tell you, it has a big role.
Brolin Mawejje, Snowboard slopestyle, Uganda I would say fear plays a huge role.
Jamie Anderson, Snowboard (slopestyle, big air), United States A huge role.
Lloyd Wallace, Aerials, Britain Fear plays a huge role in aerial skiing.
Faye Gulini, Snowboard cross, United States There’s a ton of risk, and there’s a ton of fear in
Faye Gulini, Snowboard cross, United States what we do.
Mark McMorris, Snowboard (slopestyle, big air), Canada Fear enters my mind on a daily basis.
Logan Sankey, Ski jumping, United States Probably any ski jumper that told you they never
Logan Sankey, Ski jumping, United States experienced fear is lying.
Jacqueline Wiles, Alpine skiing, United States I think they’re lying.
Shauna Rohbock, Bobsled, retired, United States You’re lying.
Casey Larson, Ski jumping, United States As an athlete, you have to be really good at lying to yourself.
Brock Crouch, Snowboard slopestyle, United States Fear is something that everybody deals with.
Lloyd Wallace, Aerials, Britain The one common factor that everyone has to deal with.
Shaun White, Snowboard halfpipe, United States Yeah, it’s just something that we kind of deal with on the daily.
Michael Dammert, Snowboard head coach, Germany Well, it’s your best friend and your biggest enemy.
Fear is a complex and personal topic. Ask athletes what scares them, and the answers cover a broad spectrum — the fear of missing the Olympics, of regret, of disappointing family and friends, of losing control of where their story goes or how their career ends.
But the No. 1 answer is a fear that is visceral, tangible and common in these sports.
It is the fear of getting hurt.
Winter Olympic athletes in the most extreme sports tend to fall into two categories: Those who have sustained serious injuries. And those who will.
There is no good time to get hurt. But there is a worse time. Alice Merryweather knows. Only one thing could keep Merryweather, one of the top American ski racers, out of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. And on a quiet September morning in the Swiss Alps, it did.
It was nothing but a bobble, not unlike all the others that ski racers encounter and recover from at high speeds. Merryweather frantically tried to regain her balance.
In a moment, she pitched forward, then flung back, her backside on her skis, still pointing downhill until one caught on the ice. Two bones snapped in her left leg. Ligaments ripped in her knee. She spun forward as her face scraped the coarse ice, leaving her bloodied. Gravity dragged her downhill until she slid to a heaping stop.
Merryweather has a video of her crash. Her boyfriend, Sam DuPratt, a ski racer recovering from two broken legs, avoided watching it until recently.
Alice Merryweather, Alpine skiing, United States Yeah, so this is the video of when
Alice Merryweather, Alpine skiing, United States I crashed in September.
I, like, almost, I almost had it.
When you see that, like, it happened so quickly, I can’t
remember the feeling of my leg breaking or anything like that.
It just explains why life moves so
slowly right now and why I have to go through
Merryweather’s face healed in the ensuing months, but her leg — and perhaps her psyche — has a long way to go.
The ski season has gone on without her. Skiers have won races that might have been hers. As with the other athletes interviewed, Merryweather never feared the pain of injury. It was about heartbreak. It was the fear of missed opportunity.
The ultimate culmination of four years of work — the Olympics — will happen without Merryweather, as she heals on the other side of the globe.
It will be nearly two years before she is on skis again.
So I’m in kind of a limbo phase right now of my recovery.
I’ve had two surgeries already.
Now I’m just waiting for my tibia to heal enough that
they can take the rod out of it.
Anywhere from five to 11 months from now,
I’ll be able to get that done and then it will be another
six to nine months, and then I’ll get back on
snow, start sliding around.
I’m afraid of all of the uncertainty at this point.
I don’t know how my body is going to heal.
I don’t know how this leg is going to feel when I try
to challenge it again, even before putting it on snow.
The joy that comes from going really
fast and arcing a really
beautiful turn is like nothing I’ve ever felt
in any other aspect of my life and that
outweighs the fear 10 times to one.
The fear of injury is not unique to Winter Olympians, of course. It is the one thing that worries every athlete.
But it is different with the Winter Olympics, given the concentration of dangerous sports on unforgiving surfaces. Athletes must push themselves to the brink to even have a chance at the Olympics. But the brink is an unforgiving place.
The risks are not theoretical. World-class snowboarders and freeskiers have been traumatically injured and have died from accidents in the halfpipe. Top skiers have died in bad crashes, including at the Olympics. On the sliding track — the raceway of luge, skeleton and bobsled — a luge athlete, Nodar Kumaritashvili, was killed on the eve of the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Peter Parks/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“I get emotional about it even today,” said Bill Schuffenhauer, a 2002 silver medalist in four-man bobsled who competed in those Vancouver Games. He remembers the heightened levels of fear for the sliding athletes who, just days after the crash, had to compete on that track.
Bill Schuffenhauer, Bobsled, retired, United States Having the Georgian athlete die, we still had to go
compete after that guy, you know.
And, you know, rest his soul, but
I assure you, every skeleton,
luge and bobsled athlete literally had
a massive fear instilled in them when that
Because if we wanted to compete, we still had to go down
that same exact track that this guy just lost his life on.
Danger ratchets up each Olympic cycle. The tricks are bigger, the speeds are faster, the competition is better.
Some sports are imposing limits. The halfpipe grew to 22 feet and stopped, with no discussion of anything bigger. Ski courses and sliding tracks seem to have established plateaus for top speeds. The size of ski jumps are standard.
No sport, though, has capped the danger quite like aerials. Athletes fling themselves nearly straight up in the air to perform twists and somersaults. They land so hard that they sometimes cough up blood.
The sport limits the number of flips to three. And aerialists, as daring and as fearful as any other Winter Olympians, are relieved by that.
We’re hitting a limit. Aerials has been increasing in its
difficulty since Day 1.
Lloyd Wallace, Aerials, Britain So we’ve got three different sizes of jump.
Lloyd Wallace, Aerials, Britain There’s the single kicker.
Then the double kicker.
And then the triple kicker is four meters high, and that’s
where the majority of aerialists compete on.
And you do triple somersaults.
There’s been limitations put in, and they’ve
been stretched to the max.
You learn to crash in aerials.
Not landing on your feet and landing on your face, that
can feel like you’ve been hit by a car.
And landing on your back without your skis
touching, it just feels like you’ve been folded like a suitcase.
If you land on your back, then you never know you might
cough up a bit of blood in your lungs.
It’s too dangerous to do four flips.
Laura Peel, Aerials, Australia It is banned because it’s said to be too dangerous.
Nicolas Gygax, Aerials, Switzerland Honestly, I’m really glad that there is this rule.
Nicolas Gygax, Aerials, Switzerland I don’t want to do four flips. Three is enough.
We already go 15 meters into the air and we already
come in 65 to 70 kilometers per hour.
You’d need a lot more speed again and you’re
going to launch yourself even higher.
I don’t think there’s anybody out there who’s really
desperate at the moment to add an extra flip.
I think that’s kind of down to, down to, yeah, people’s
general self-preservation and I guess the fear of injury.
Across many of the events, fear of injury is the invisible weight on athletes, a what-if dread that they cannot fully escape. It causes sleepless nights. It fuels hours of preparation. It stirs an I-might-throw-up panic in the start gate.
“There have been times that races have been canceled, and I’ve been relieved, 100 percent,” American ski racer Erik Arvidsson said. “Because I was scared as hell, and I needed another day to gather myself.”
Even the world’s top male skier this season is not immune.
“You get kind of an ache in your legs, your knees, and you feel like you lose control over your body,” Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway said. “You can feel it right away when you’re pushing out at the start. You want to push 100 percent, but then your mind kicks in and holds you back, and you can only push out, like, 85 percent, 90 percent. And then you know something is wrong.”
Michael Dammert is the German freestyle snowboard coach and has a master’s degree in sports psychology. He called fear “your best friend and your biggest enemy.”
Dammert considers fear a basic survival instinct.
“It goes into the old areas of the brain — really in the amygdala, in the deepest layers of the brain,” he said. “That’s also why it’s so hard to control.”
He explained that fear causes the fight or flight response — or it freezes people.
All those reactions are good signs, in a way. Fear might limit the top athletes, but it also might save them.
“It’s too fast for you not to have that voice in your head saying, ‘We’re going too fast, and if we hit a tree, we’re going to die,’” Johnson, the ski racer, said. “That fear is instinctive. It’s put in your brain for a reason.”
John Branch, New York Times reporter Since you all have fear to some degree,
John Branch, New York Times reporter in what ways is that a good thing?
Brolin Mawejje, Snowboard slopestyle, Uganda This is it.
Brolin Mawejje, Snowboard slopestyle, Uganda Either you go through it, or you let that fear crumble you.
River Radamus, Alpine skiing, United States Fear keeps you sharp.
Anna Gasser, Snowboard (slopestyle, big air), Austria It makes you focus.
Nicolas Gygax, Aerials, Switzerland Focus.
Lloyd Wallace, Aerials, Britain I think it focuses you.
J.R. Celski, Short-track speedskating, retired, United States It gives you maybe a little bit more adrenaline.
Mike Jankowski, Ski and snowboard teams head coach, United States Adrenaline. There’s endorphins.
Mike Jankowski, Ski and snowboard teams head coach, United States That’s power.
Michael Dammert, Snowboard head coach, Germany It’s a basic instinct.
Steven Nyman, Alpine skiing, United States Fear is a warning sign.
Jamie Anderson, Snowboard (slopestyle, big air), United States That’s what keeps us more safe and, like, on the edge of a cliff.
Anna Gasser, Snowboard (slopestyle, big air), Austria That’s maybe when you should stop or, like, go a step back.
Leon Vockensperger, Snowboard (slopestyle, big air), Germany Dude, like, it’s all right to have, like, a bad day.
Steven Nyman, Alpine skiing, United States Some of these younger guys are, like, “I’m just going to
Steven Nyman, Alpine skiing, United States send it.”
Ryan Cochran-Siegle, Alpine skiing, United States Send it.
Jamie Anderson, Snowboard (slopestyle, big air), United States Send it
Michael Dammert, Snowboard head coach, Germany Send it.
Brock Crouch, Snowboard slopestyle, United States Absolutely sending it.
Leon Vockensperger, Snowboard (slopestyle, big air), Germany I don’t want to send it, but everybody else is doing it, so
Leon Vockensperger, Snowboard (slopestyle, big air), Germany I probably should do too.
Jacqueline Wiles, Alpine skiing, United States Which is very dangerous.
André Höflich, Snowboard halfpipe, Germany If we didn’t have fear, we would all be dead by now.
To reach the Olympics means not only having more talent than most others in the world, but also being more daring. It is taking risks, thoughtfully.
Fear, the athletes said, is a balance. Too much can be debilitating. Too little can be worse.
“Fear,” halfpipe snowboarder André Höflich said, “is what keeps us alive in the end.”