This is the most challenging downhill ski race in the world

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: One of the marquee events of any Winter Olympics is the downhill race in alpine skiing. That's the high-speed rush down the mountain with athletes zooming passed gates that are set really far apart. Arguably the most famous downhill race course in the world is not in Sochi, it's in Kitzbuhel, Austria, and Olympic hopefuls will be competing in a world cup event there tomorrow, just about two weeks from the start of the games in Russia. The course at Kitzbuhel was called "The Strife," and it's really challenging and dangerous.
Reporter Nathaniel Vinton is a skier, and he covers the sport along with many others for the New York Daily News. Nathaniel, you've witnessed the races at Kitzbuhel. What makes this particular course so famous?

Nathaniel Vinton: Well, the Strife is a long downhill on a course that was laid out at a time where the sport wasn't as fast as it is now. In the early 1930s, it took a lot longer to get down it, and you had softer snow, you didn't have the same equipment. So it's gotten very, very fast, on a track that was not designed for this kind of speed, originally. A narrow dash through the mountains, and it's got some enormous jumps, including one that comes about ten seconds into the course, and then a very challenging bottom section. But it's scary and difficult from top to bottom.

Schachter: This is the kind of course where you go flying off a rise and you're in the air for quite a bit of time.

Vinton: Yes, and on every one of those jumps, there's a whole separate mythology about, you know, the terrible accidents that have happened there and the brave exploits of the winners on each of those jumps and the straight-aways.

Schachter: The question everyone here in our newsroom asks is, how fast are these guys going at top speeds, on a course like this?

Vinton: The high speeds at Kitzbuhel are into the 80s in miles per hour. There are places on the World Cup Tour where racers cross 90 miles per hour, and even last year, a hundred miles per hour, at Wengan, Switzerland. But the really tricky thing about Kitzbuhel is some of the movies that the racers have to make at high speeds. It's one thing to be in your aerodynamic tuck position, going 80 miles per hour; it's a whole different thing to be exhausted after almost two minutes of racing, and having to execute a very technical, difficult turn on one leg.

Schachter: So Nathaniel Vinton, have you done this course?

Vinton: I have gone up on the course a number of times over the years and inspected it, going at, you know, lower speeds through it, and looking at it. So I have been up and down it and it's astonishing. I can't believe that they even race on it. When I see it up close I'm amazed.

Schachter: [Laughs] So you weren't going 80 plus miles an hour?

Vinton: No, I definitely wasn't.

Schachter: 20 plus miles an hour, maybe?

Vinton: Yeah, maybe in the 40s or something like that.

Schachter: Oh, that's pretty good.

Vinton: Yeah. But I had the luxury of stopping to look around and catch my breath a little bit, so...

Schachter: Alright, big race tomorrow. Who's the favorite?

Vinton: Well, everybody's watching Bode Miller this year, the American downhiller. He's 36 years old, and he's won so many different trophies and titles in the sport. But this is one that he's never quite gotten a victory on. He's been second a number of times there. He's won other events on the hill, but not the downhill. And every year, it seems, he's done something that sort of steals the show. A sort of acrobatic recovery, one year he skied up on one of the safety fences. So everybody's expecting big things of Bode Miller. And then the other reason is that there was a training run yesterday, Thursday, and he won by a huge margin. So everybody knows that this is the one that he's really aiming for this year. If he won Kitzbuhel and somehow didn't even get to go to the Olympics, I don't think he would call it a disappointing season. It's right up there with his biggest goals.

Schachter: Nathaniel, I notice that women don't do the course at Kitzbuhel. Is that because skiing officials thought women couldn't handle it?

Vinton: Yeah, I think as skiing got much faster in the 1960s, based on equipment and the snow preparation, they divided the venues between the men and the women, and they travel on separate tours and Kitzbuhel became a men's race. There were women that raced there all through the 30s and 40s, and it hasn't been the case since.

Schachter: Nathaniel Vinton is a downhill skier and a downhill reporter. He's covering alpine skiing at Sochi for the New York Daily News, and he's working on a book about downhill racing. Thank you, Nathaniel.

Vinton: My pleasure, thanks for having me.