COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — When he was a child, Eric Bergoust's great obsession was seeking ways to scare himself out of his mind. Not the campy "Nightmare on Elm Street" sort of horror, but the real, teeth-chattering rush that comes with pitting oneself against the laws of physics.
There were the times when he sprinted in front of oncoming cars and then leapt over the side of a bridge into Montana's Bitterroot River. There was the time he went skydiving on his 16th birthday, the first day the law would allow him to fling himself out of a functioning airplane. "It wasn't very scary," he now recalls.
So he became a Winter Olympian. As the Turin Games are set to open this Friday, America is once again preparing to celebrate a group of athletes whose daily deeds would be diagnosed as "completely nuts" by many psychologists. Spend any time at all around these athletes, though, and it becomes clear that this is not just a day job. To them, danger is as essential to daily life as sleep and cornflakes.
They are a collection of bungee jumpers and thrill seekers who live life beyond the red line, pushing their bodies, their sleds, or two planks of steel-edged fiberglass until they become Lycra-clad bullets.
"You have to be a little bit of a daredevil," says Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, a member of the American freestyle ski jumping team with Bergoust.
After all, the very point of many Winter Olympic sports is to narrowly avoid disaster. Curlers, perhaps, might not fear for their well-being in each match, but there is a reason that the definitive image of the "agony of defeat" - the footage of a ski jumper careening off the ramp - occurred in a Winter Olympic sport.
From the knee-pumping punishment of mogul skiing to the chaos of short-track speed skating, the Winter Olympics is a series of NASCAR crashes without the seat belts. In someone like skier Bode Miller, who has abandoned all pretense of form in an attempt to keep his skis on the fastest possible line down the hill, the thin line between inspiration and implosion erupts into plain view on every run.
Yet even the smooth and the stylish hit 80 m.p.h., generating the same kinetic energy as they would falling off an 18-story building. Lugers pull as many G's as fighter pilots, holding their neck and legs arrow-straight and avoiding sidewalls with steering movements as delicate as the strokes of a feather-brush. Bergoust acknowledges: "The biggest thing to overcome in aerials was the fear."
For him and fellow aerialist Peterson, though, that is also the sport's allure. "I have two speeds," Peterson says. "Stop and go."
Needless to say, the world won't see much of the mild-mannered, harmonica-playing Jeret in Turin. This is a month for his "Speedy" alter ego, who lists among his hobbies sky diving and popping wheelies with his motorcycle on the highway. His signature aerial trick is the "Hurricane," and it is only slightly less complicated than an entire Riverdance routine performed upside down at 50 feet above the ground.
Once he leaves the lip of the ramp, Peterson must flip backward three times while also spinning his body into five aerial pirouettes - in less than four seconds. He's only landed it a handful of times, and the last time he performed it in competition, one of his skis blew off at landing. He arrived at the bottom of the hill upright on the other ski, as if to show he could.
Then again, the conventional wisdom of the human species has never seemed to apply to Peterson. At age 7, during his very first ski lesson, he thought he was supposed to follow the ski instructor, who was skiing backward to watch the class. So Peterson, too, skied backwards - flawlessly. Four years later, when he started learning freestyle jumping, he was always so eager to take the jump again that he cut to the front of the line, earning him the nickname Speedy.
They are stories that could be passed among Winter Olympians like trading cards - on one side, the smiling face of the model Olympian, on the other, a list of adventures worthy of modern-day sporting Shackletons.
"We would definitely climb a little higher in the tree," says Peterson.
In a sense, the Winter Olympics are just one big dare. There is perhaps no other way to explain skeleton, in which competitors slide headfirst down a bobsled track with no clear means of steering.
"We are just a bunch of big kids on a big slide," says 2002 Olympian Chris Soule, who has also worked as a stuntman, jumping out of a helicopter flying 30 feet in the air at 35 m.p.h. "I basically beat myself up as a kid," he adds, "and this has taught me to use that energy in a positive direction."
The first time he tried skeleton, he rubbed an inch of rubber off his boots as he dragged them to avoid becoming the subzero version of a bug on a windshield. Gold medalist Lea Ann Parsley claims she can tell whether first-time sliders enjoy their run by the pitch of their screams.
For his part, Bergoust has crashed more times than he would like to remember, including one in Utah last year that knocked him out. Yet as he enters his fourth and final Games, there is still the spark of the kid who clambered onto the roof of his Montana home and did flips from the chimney onto a pile of mattresses.
"It's an addiction," he says of the feeling when he's jumped his best. "You feel you can do it every time."