"YOU SHOULDN’T LAUGH. That guy died." The comment is one of hundreds under the YouTube video in which Scott Macartney screams at 88 miles per hour down the World Cup’s most intimidating course, Austria’s Hahnenkamm, known for its clifflike plunges and hairpin turns. Macartney hits jump after jump in perfect aerodynamic form—knees tucked up to his chest, skis together, hands below boots. On the final jump of the run the skier rockets 12 feet into the air. Then his body rotates inexplicably to the right and his form disintegrates into that of a man falling off a step ladder, arms flailing before for impact. He slams onto the snowpack in an explosion of man and mountain, ice hissing and spraying, his helmet and left ski popping off. The limp body slides down the hill and across the finish line. It twitches for five seconds then goes still as a stone.
Watching the clip, it’s hard to believe that the skier didn’t meet his maker. No one can blame YouTube commenters for assuming so. Not even Macartney himself. “I was like, ‘Well, interesting,’” he says in the kitchen of his Kirkland home. The solid 5-foot 11-inch athlete with a thick mop of black hair has propensity for understatement. “I put a comment on that one, that yeah, I’m alive, I’m doing well. Not dead.”
Not dead, but the January 2008 crash put Macartney in a doctor-induced coma. He awoke, 11 hours later, with blurred vision in one eye. He was alive, but his ski career was on its deathbed.
Macartney has spent most of his 32 years on mountainsides vying to become one of the fastest skiers on the planet. He is a two-time Olympian with two top-three finishes on the World Cup circuit, despite a career pocked with injuries that have cemented his reputation as one of skiing’s most dogged competitors. The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics in February might be his last chance to earn what has proven to be an elusive Olympic medal.
This month U.S. Ski Team officials and coaches will select four Olympic skiers to race in the men’s downhill and four for the men’s super-G. Their decision will be based on current World Cup standings as of mid-January, just weeks before the Games open on February 12. But Macartney has missed chunks of each of the past two seasons due to injuries, hurting his rankings. He’s also one of the oldest skiers on the national team. Time is closing in on Macartney, and his quadrennial moment in the spotlight may soon end for good.
Macartney started skiing at age two and a half at Crystal Mountain, the Cascade ski resort in Seattle’s backyard. He was racing by seven. His parents, John and Laurie Macartney, had met while on the Crystal Mountain ski patrol, volunteer gigs they continued during weekends off from their jobs as educators. (Laurie taught chemistry and biology at Redmond High School. John was a principal at Issaquah Middle School.) Kids of volunteer patrollers skied for free at Crystal, and the Macartneys took full advantage.
As soon as school let out on Fridays, the family would drive to Crystal, ski all weekend, and return Sunday night. “We were up at the mountain every week, as far back as I can remember,” says Scott’s brother Matt, two years his senior and a top-ranked telemark ski racer before he retired in 2007.
The Macartneys noticed early that Scott—at age three or four—was braver than other kids. He’d jump six or seven feet off his grandparents’ deck into a forward roll, or leap off the bow of a boat into the water. “Every mom of a downhiller knows, probably from the age of three on, that they’re wired a little differently than most kids,” Laurie says. “At the same time, it’s probably a consequence of how we raised him.”
Besides skiing, John and Laurie canoed, hiked, and climbed with the boys. Matt and Scott raced on the local swim team and earned Eagle Scout badges. They summited Mount Rainier as teenagers.
At Crystal, Scott shined. Under the coaching of retired World Cup downhiller Alan Lauba, Scott would ski the entire mountain instead of heading for the gentle trails when the route got difficult. He grew accustomed to skiing in all conditions—rain, crud, powder, down chutes, and off cliffs.
Unlike so many skiers on the U.S. Ski Team, Macartney did not attend a ski academy. He and his family found them too high on cost and too low on academics. He stuck with Redmond High School, where he was an honors student. But he needed some flexibility in his scholastic schedule for all the classroom time missed while training and competing in winter.
He added independent study and correspondence courses to his regular class load, as well as two winter terms at the alternative Bellevue Off-Campus. He graduated with his Redmond High class in the spring of 1996—one B-plus away from straight As.
Macartney was accepted to Dartmouth College, but deferred a year to put all his efforts toward making the U.S. team. He’d been a four-event skier (slalom, giant slalom, super-G, downhill), but he started to show particular promise in the two speed events: downhill, the fastest event, and super-G, the second fastest, which combines the wide arcing turns of giant slalom with downhill’s breakneck 60-plus-mile-per-hour speed. He won a junior national super-G title in 1997 and earned a high international ranking. His hopes were dashed when the team eliminated that ranking as a qualifying criterion. He enrolled in Dartmouth, then took the second trimester off for one last shot at the national team. He scored a third-place finish in the junior world championship downhill. It put him on the U.S. Ski Team.
Macartney distinguished himself early on as the skier most dedicated to testing his own limits. He trained harder than anyone else on the team. He had to. Macartney, unlike so many star alpine racers, isn’t a natural-born talent. “He’s a real self-made skier,” says Phil McNichol, his former coach on the U.S. Ski Team. “He has chiseled his success through hard work.” Macartney clawed his way up: first the C team, then the B. On November 27, 1999, he made his first World Cup start. But he didn’t forget about school; he graduated from Dartmouth in 2004 with a degree in economics—one of the only national-team skiers with a college degree.
Course workers had been fiddling with the jump all week and again before the race, making it smaller and more rounded because racers were flying dangerously too far during practice runs. “I think when they were shoveling it and walking around on it they left it uneven,” Macartney says.
The radar clocked him at close to 90 miles per hour when he hit the jump. “I felt like I got a little more kick off my left foot than I did with my right,” Macartney would later recall. His left ski drifted up and he felt his body rotate in midair. He was sideways, his skis were sideways, and disaster unfolded in excruciatingly slow motion.
He remembers being unable to get straight. He remembers everything to the point of impact. “You go right from ‘I might be all right’ to ‘Oh, I’m screwed,’ ” he told the Associated Press. “It’s that fast. You land and it’s just an explosion. I was trying to do everything I could to land on my feet and keep going.”
He hit the snow on his right side. The back of his helmet slammed to the ground at a force later determined to be 68 miles per hour by the helmet manufacturer. The helmet shattered and flew off. Bareheaded, the side of his face scraping the snow, Macartney slid, limp and unconscious, over the finish line.
High atop the course, Macartney’s good friend Marco Sullivan watched on a TV screen in the start area. He still had a race to run. He got “kind of a sick-to-my-stomach feeling,” Sullivan says. “I thought he was dead.” Macartney had so much momentum when he fell that, despite sliding across the finish line unconscious, he still managed to come in 33rd out of 55 skiers.
Macartney regained consciousness in a hospital bed half a day later with no broken bones or sprains. But it took two months for his eyesight to fully return to normal and the mental fog to lift. He underwent heart-rate restriction rehab, which meant limiting his heart rate to no more than 100 beats per minute to keep pressure low on his healing brain. “Brutal,” said Macartney, who couldn’t run or bike or even read because of his blurred vision. “I was watching movies, getting dumber.”
The scariest aspect of recovery for a skier after a crash like Macartney’s is the question of whether he or she will have the nerve to go fast again. “It takes a while to get that back, to lay everything on the line again,” said Sullivan, Macartney’s friend, whose knee surgery in late 2004 forced him off the circuit for the 2005 season. “It took me about a year to really feel confident again. You have to trick yourself into thinking it’s okay. It’s a total mental game.”
By spring, four months after the crash, Macartney began to train with the ski team’s “Return to Snow” injured-racer program in Mammoth, California, where he swallowed his pride and revisited the fundamentals of downhill. There he was, 30 years old and considered one of the top alpine racers in the world, and he was performing basic turn drills on one of Mammoth’s gentle slopes like a beginning racer.
There would be no first-place finishes that season, but by fall Macartney was gaining the nerve to ski at top speeds and his body was becoming strong enough to take it. In late December he finished in the top 25 in two races at the World Cup stop in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Later in the month he scored 15th place at Val Gardena, Italy.
As Macartney’s confidence slowly returned he became prickly with reporters’ fixation with Kitzbühel. “It’s almost to the point where it’s grating to me,” he said by phone from Colorado. “I go through the finish, and every single reporter has the same question. My body’s feeling good. I’m not looking back.”
If this were a movie, that comeback would be enough. He’d make his third Olympic team, then win a gold medal. Instead, last January, a year before the Vancouver Games, on a fluky, fairly routine jump in Wengen, Switzerland, Macartney caught a ski edge when he landed and felt his knee pop.
He was told what every athlete hates to hear: full reconstruction, six months to heal. “The crash was lame,” Macartney vented on February 2, 2009, a little over a year after Kitzbühel, and about a week after his knee surgery. It was Groundhog Day. “It wasn’t like I had a huge crash and was pushing the line. It was like, ‘Really. I got hurt on that jump?’ You work so hard to get back into shape… it’s like a reset back to the position I was in a year ago.”
By April 2009, Macartney was off crutches but far from recovered. The next step was to get off painkillers and become fanatical about physical therapy. The familiar monotony of rehab for Macartney is epitomized by the CPM (continuous passive motion) machine. Designed to increase range of motion, the machine, really a series of bars that looks like a leg brace wrapped around the limb, bends the knee and slowly straightens it, over and over. The machine droned day and night. “I’m supposed to be on that six to eight hours a day,” he said. “I try to break it up, do some stuff in the day, do email.”
But the hardest part for him is watching his body shrink. Skiers lose weight—muscle weight—when they’re not active. Macartney fluctuates between 204 and 208 pounds during the season. During three weeks of inactivity, he lost 17 pounds of hard-earned muscle. “It’s weeks,” he says, “of watching months in the gym just fade away.”
If one could erase the time he’s missed due to injuries over the years, Macartney would be about 29, peaking at the perfect time for Olympic Games so close that Washington athletes consider them home games. Now he has no margin for error.
Time away has meant a falling in his rankings. A lower ranking means a later start time at races, when there’s a greater chance the course is chewed up and slower than for the top racers. To make the Olympic team “I have to have everything go right,” he said last summer. “No major setbacks.”
Former coach Phil McNichol has watched Macartney’s phoenix rise from the ashes again and again. He stood in “utter awe” at Macartney’s return after the Kitzbühel crash in 2008. “He’s shown tremendous fortitude and ability to come back.”
Macartney’s first goal: Make the 2010 Olympic team. Second: Win the gold. To call Macartney a medal contender would be a stretch. But when it comes to the Olympics, you never know. It’s been done. In 2006, 13 months after wrecking his knee, France’s Antoine Deneriaz, 29, won the Olympic downhill despite starting 30th that day. Bill Johnson came from practically nowhere to win the 1984 Olympic downhill in an otherwise inauspicious World Cup career.
Known for his gliding and jumping ability, Macartney may pull off his best performance in super-G. At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, Macartney placed 15th in downhill and seventh in the super-G. The difference between Mac and a medal? Less than three-tenths of a second.
The magic—and the curse—of the quadrennial Olympics is that you don’t have to be the world’s best skier to win Olympic gold. Just the best on that day. Maybe that magic will be on Scott Macartney’s side February 13, 2010, the day of the men’s Olympic downhill in Whistler. Maybe the story of the guy who crashed at Kitzbühel will have a happy ending.
Back in February 2009, Macartney was driving I-70 in Colorado after knee surgery, leaving the mountains for the Denver airport and home in Seattle. The snow came down hard. The sedan was a rental with tires unfit for slick road conditions. To the side, a half-dozen cars, mostly SUVs, had slid off the freeway and into ditches.
Macartney suppressed his usual need for speed and eased off the gas as he thought about the challenges ahead. He came to this conclusion: “The more I ski race the more I realize that you can go out and prepare impeccably and be focused and have everything going, and still have stuff go wrong.”
Moments later a guy in an SUV passed him—then slowed down. So Macartney passed him, keeping an eye in the rearview mirror. Suddenly, the SUV spun out of control and smashed into the median. “Lucky,” Macartney thought. “That could have been me.”