While Connie was watching the Lakers on Tuesday, TV5Monde caught my attention with a report on the fear of downhill ski world champions. I have long been fascinated by downhill skiing; to hear European champions admit fear and insecurity as openly as they did was as riveting as their masterful, hell-bent maneuvers down glacial runs. (Gee, they don’t look scared.)
Footage of various accidents over years of world cup competitions took my breath away. One contestant admitted having no recollection of an accident that left him in a coma for days. “He is lucky to walk,” said a winner from the 70s, a skier who also once sustained the kind of injuries from a fall that left him wondering if he would be confined to a wheelchair the rest of his life. Now, gray and healthy, the former champion waits with the crowd at the bottom of the run to watch the contestants fly down faster (due to technological advances in skis themselves as well as the simple rule of competition) than he or his rivals ever skied.
The case of 20-year old Austrian Gernot Reinstadler, who died the night after he flew into a safety net (at fifty miles per hour) during the 1991 World Cup, exemplifies the uncertainty expressed by one of the World Cup contestants in the TV5Monde reportage: “When I wait at the starting gate, I sometimes realize I could be dead in four minutes.”
There is a parallel to writing that will not take anyone’s breath away, but which is nonetheless significant. Every writer, at the starting gate of his/her career, has no way of knowing whether his writing will be read/remembered at the end of the run, perhaps forty years on. A writer can be eloquent, profound, gripping, witty and even prolific, and his entire life’s work may all sink to the bottom of the sea. Or dissipate into outer space. Or be deleted with one computer meltdown.
So is it worth it? Yes, say the skiers. The flirtation with death is worth the adrenalin rush and the mastery of a sport. Likewise must the writer say yes, the years or lifetime of contemplating the human spirit and translating that via words and story is so compelling, he or she could not have done otherwise.
Thus do skiers and writers share the pulse that keeps their blood moving, and they do it knowing full well that more people lose than win. The truth is that somehow the losing really isn’t.