Monday, February 09, 2004

Cogitate Atypically

Yesterday I read an article in the New Yorker on World Cup downhill skiing. I've always been interested in the sport, and the image of the guy wiping out in the intro of The Wide World of Sports will never leave me - at least until my Alzheimer's gets worse. In some sports it is fairly straightforward to identify why they are so good: Michael Johnson was faster and more efficient than anybody else, Pedro Martinez can throw an unhittable ball better than anybody else, and Lance Armstrong is not human (though I think his tremendous genetic makeup, support team and training regimem count for a lot...).

But in downhill skiing I've always found it difficult to figure out what makes the true champion consistently better than anyone else. Part of that is the incredibly miniscule time differences that separate the winners from the losers and the fact that at the top level everyone has essentially the same equipment. So my thinking was, at some point winning will just be because of luck because all the factors seem to be about the same for everybody. But I think mostly why I couldn't figure it out was because of my ignorance of what it takes. The article presented two very different attitudes and approaches on what it does take.

The first attitude was the Austrian approach to developing their elite skiers of which Hermann Maier ("The Herminator") is their best example. As you would expect from German stereotypes, Maier is not so much a human as an extension of a vast and complicated "factory". When reading about Maier, I thought of Chaplin in the gears of Modern Times. The reporter followed him through a typical training day complete with hourly blood readings, super analyzed diets, and a incredibly weird description of a visualization/relaxation tank with soothing lights etc. An engineer for the Austrians was quoted saying something like "As soon as something is developed for the military, we take it and improve it for our skiers". But all of this doesn't account for the fact that Maier is winning World Cup races two years or so after almost losing his leg in a motorcycle accident. I think I would still be in crutches. The overwhelming sense that I got from the article that all of the behind the scenes stuff certainly helps him, but he wins because of his mental attitude towards getting down the hill as fast as possible - it is a war and he wants to come out on top. I guess this leads him to attacking the gates more aggressively than others and skiing more on the edge than others. It isn't so much that he was a born skier, but that with a little help he has willed and made himself into the best. I also get the sense that if nothing counted on getting down the mountain fast, then he wouldn't care - it is all about winning and what goes with winning. Carefree it ain't.

The other attitude was exlemplified by Bode Miller, an American from New Hampshire. To give you an idea of the difference between the two, imagine you are the father of a daughter going on her first date. You hear the doorbell and answer the door to meet the boy taking her out. If you open the door and you meet a younger Pete Rose on the doorstep - that would be Hermann Maier. You would get the impression that he will go far and that nothing will be able to stand in his way, and that it won't be always very pleasant. On the other hand if you open the door and you meet Jeff Spicoli - that would be Bode Miller.

Miller revolutionized World Cup skiing by doing something that the Austrians probably never would have thought of. He was very comfortable with the way he had developed his skiing - but it seemed that the skies he was using weren't doing the job for him. So he got some new recreational skies that were being marketed for skiers who needed help turning and used them. And whipped some serious butt. The next year almost every World Cup skier was using that type of skis. But what really gets me was the fact that winning wasn't necessarily why he skies, it seems he just wants to get down the mountain faster and do some really good turns. He also has a very intuitive style which has organically grown out of his own experience - i.e. something that can't be taught and is successful because it really only fits him. Speed dictates his style and technique rather than "proper" style and technique giving him speed. Let's just say that the Austrians probably think that kind of thinking is Bolshevism. Additionally, I could imagine that Miller would be just as happy turning in an awesome run outside of competition with nobody watching as he would in the Olympics. If twenty years from now I read a headline that says "Ex World Cup Champion Goes on Shooting Rampage", it won't be Miller that will leap to mind, but perhaps someone else.

So I guess you can tell that I'm more attracted to spiritual visionaries that succeed from within themselves rather than competitive, mechanical and soulless types. It's Miller Time!

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