BOSTON — The first time Eric Bergoust launched off a freestyle ski ramp his mother couldn't stop gasping.
"She usually gasps once when she sees me doing something she thinks is dangerous," he says, "but I was in the air so long, she just kept gasping."
Today his mother still gasps, not with fear but with awe. Bergoust is an eight-year member of the United States Ski Team, and is considered America's best shot at medaling in the aerial competition at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in February in Nagano, Japan.
Although Bergoust was sidelined four weeks with an injury at last season's start, he finished strong, nabbing a silver medal at the World Freestyle Championships in Japan. This season he has picked up where he left off, capturing a World Cup victory in Australia in August - his seventh career first-place World Cup finish.
Freestyle skiing was added to the Olympic menu in 1992, and the aerial event became a full medal competition in Lillehammer at the 1994 Winter Games.
Since aerial skiing isn't a popular Olympic sport and big-money sponsors are rare, athletes often times have to foot the bill for their own training and equipment. This fall Bergoust has been traveling to cities across America with the US Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) to showcase his talents and raise money. Because snow is scarce in October, the skiers preform their high-strung acrobatics on trampolines.
USSA spokesman Tom Kelly says most Olympic athletes would rather be training than going to malls. "It's not glamorous," he says, "but the sport is up and coming, and it's a good opportunity for people to come out and meet the skiers."
As a boy, Bergoust remembers dragging mattresses out of his home in Missoula, Mont., onto the lawn so he and his two brothers could do flips off their roof and land safely.
Although the earringed aerialist lives up to his reputation as a daredevil, he says the image sometimes discredits the work and time he's put to his craft. Bergoust says he's a fierce competitor, and jokingly claims to only "relax and have fun one day out of a month."
Matt Chojnacki, a three-year US Ski Team member, says Bergoust has been a close friend as well as a coach. Chojnacki says he admires Bergoust for the intensity of his work ethic and his ability to focus.
"To be competitive you have to be able to push everything aside that's going on in your life and just concentrate on skiing," he says. "Eric can do this with no problem, and that's why he's successful."
Looking ahead to the Winter Games, Bergoust says he's nervous but at the same time confident he will represent the US. He's been successful on Japanese snow where it took a record score to beat him for the gold at the World Championships.
"I guess I'm a ski bum. Everything I love about life is included in my sport. If I want to be intellectual one day I can analyze my jumps, or, if I want to experiment and see if any other technique works better, I'll do that," he says. "As long as I think I'm on a path always moving forward, trying to push the envelope, I'll stay competitive."