- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

TURIN, Italy — The Winter Olympics are really the games of fall.

Not the season, the act of descent.

Falling, along with the related concept of crashing, is as much a part of the competition as medals, sponsors and filling a specimen bottle. The difference between winning and losing is not always hundredths of a second. Sometimes it is merely managing to stay upright or intact.

The Summer Olympics are different. Except for maybe boxing or when something goes awry in the pole vault, those games are a testament to steadfastness and standing tall. Other than curling, in which nothing falls except the spirits of the losers, that is not the case here. As U.S. skier Kristina Koznick said, “If you’re not crashing, you’re not going hard enough.”

Koznick crashed during a training run earlier this month and partially tore a knee ligament, yet she still might compete in the slalom next week. That’s how tough most of these athletes are. It wasn’t her speed that caused it, she said, but rather a freak thing that happened. So she didn’t really fall.

Whatever it’s called, going head over skis — or snowboard, luge or hockey stick — is part of the scenery, natural or man-made, in the Winter Games.

“You have to find that line of ‘what’s the fastest I can go?’” Koznick said. “If I wasn’t crashing, I wouldn’t be here.”

Monday was a particularly nasty day of carnage as the pristine Olympics landscape became littered with crumpled bodies. Koznick’s teammate, Lindsey Kildow, crashed during a training run for today’s women’s downhill. She was flown by helicopter to a hospital and diagnosed merely with a badly bruised hip, remarkable considering how scary the mishap looked. She said she still plans to race.

Several others also fell, including defending Olympic downhill champion Carole Montillet-Carles, who sustained injuries to her ribs, back and face after slamming into a fence. Canadian racer Alison Forsythe crashed and tore a knee ligament.

You can’t fall down while lying on your back, but other bad things can and will happen. On the luge run during a medals competition, Samantha Retrosi of the U.S. team bumped a wall, crashed and was knocked unconscious. She went to the hospital, too, suffering from a concussion and short-term memory loss.

Figure skating is always good for a few spills, usually during practice. North Korean pairs skater Phyo Yong Myong had to withdraw after he fell on a throw move, crashed into the boards and hurt his back during a workout.

And Japanese star snowboarder Melo Imai was taken away on a stretcher after she failed to land cleanly on a flip-and-spin combination. She lapsed in and out of consciousness and was hospitalized with a lower back injury.

Obviously, when things go wrong in a bobsled or luge screaming down the track at 90 mph, there isn’t much to be done except pray. But for athletes who compete without such contraptions, learning how to fall correctly is a vital part of their skill set.

“Crashing is painful, but you learn not to fight it,” skier Resi Stiegler said. “Fighting it causes more pain. I like to relax. I try to become Gumby. I usually don’t get hurt that way.”

Moguls skier Travis Cabral said he learned proper falling technique through gymnastics. Fellow mogulist Toby Dawson said the key to falling is to turn your head away from the ground and let a shoulder and a knee absorb the impact.

But that doesn’t always work. Dawson suffered a lacerated kidney about five years ago.

“I think once you go through one injury and you crash, the best thing is to let go and relax,” Koznick said. “The more you’re tense, the more you tighten up, the more of a risk there is of an injury. But you know what? It’s hard to tell that to somebody when they’re going down a hill 50 miles an hour on their stomach.”

Said Stiegler, who broke her heel, tore something called an inner osmosis membrane in her leg and tore an ankle ligament when she fell in October: “Sometimes it comes out of nowhere, and you don’t know what to do.”

According to skier Stacy Cook, who suffered a concussion from a fall last year and experienced memory lapses for six or seven weeks (she could not exactly remember), “Most of the time you’re going so fast you don’t know what’s going on. In the slalom or giant slalom, you’re not going as fast, and maybe you can control it. But if you’re going 80 miles an hour, you don’t have much control over your rag-doll body.”

Some falls are routine, others worse than that. Their severity is measured by the extent of the damage, but that can be a relative thing. Cabral thinks he has learned to fall pretty well.

“I’ve crushed my hip flexors and my shoulders and pretty much every part of the right side of my body,” he said. “But I’ve had no major, major injuries. I haven’t had any broken bones or major surgeries.”

Many athletes will say the best way to deal with falling is not to fall. But because that’s impossible, the next best thing is to make sure you get up and try again. At some point.

“When you have an injury, it definitely has a psychological effect,” Koznick said. “But it’s all part of the territory.”

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