It almost seems as though American freestyle aerial skier Eric Bergoust has no more mountains to conquer in his sport. He is the world's top-ranked aerialist, and will be defending the gold medal he won at the 1998 Nagano Games at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. The only question left for Bergoust to answer is whether he can top himself.
Eric Bergoust, 32, has lots of reasons to have a chip on his shoulder. In addition to his world number-one ranking and being favored to win the freestyle aerials gold medal in Salt Lake City, he was the world champion in 1999. He won again at the 2000 Goodwill Games, has a dozen World Cup victories and the top three highest scores ever recorded in his sport. With all of his accomplishments, his modesty is a refreshing surprise.
"I feel like with all the time and energy I've spent over the last 15 years, spending as much time as I could trying to get better at the sport and working at it, I should be a lot better than I am," he says. "So I think I should have jumped better more often. So I feel like I'm kind of right on the edge of jumping well consistently. That's what I want to do."
That consistency would include winning another Olympic gold medal in the freestyle aerials. But the high expectations do not bother Bergoust.
"I don't really feel pressure because it's a huge goal, it's a huge challenge," he explains. "To win a second time is so much bigger than winning the first time that I just have to look at it like, this is going to be really difficult, and I have to do my best and hope for the best. "
Eric Bergoust grew up in the wide open spaces of Missoula, Montana, and first became aware of his sport at the age of 15 when he saw a freestyle World Cup event on television.
"It was the first time I [had] seen the sport. Before that time [motorcycle daredevil] Evil Knievel was my hero and I wanted to be a stuntman or a pilot," he explains. "I loved to ski, and when I saw the sport I said that is the coolest thing I have ever seen. I want to do that."
Competitors in freestyle aerials ski down a 30-degree ramp at more than 80 kilometers per hour, then go up and over a three-meter-tall bump known as a "kicker" that can propel them more than 15-meters into the air. They execute numerous twists and flips in midair, before hopefully making a safe and stylish landing. So how does a 15-year-old learn to do all that?
"There were not any training facilities near my home at the time, so I just tried scaring myself any way I could, because I thought that would be the hardest thing about that sport - learning to overcome the fear that you have skiing off a 14-foot tall jump and going 50 feet in the air," he says. "Me and my brothers would jump off cliffs and bridges into rivers. We used to also set up a mini-tramp [tampoline] on the edge of a bridge and wait for a car to come by, and just before they would come by we would run in front of them, bounce on the mini tramp, over the railing, and do flips over the railing," explains Eric. "And they [the drivers] would be like, "hyaaahhh." So we liked to freak people out, and one time I even took all of the mattresses out of my house and piled them below my two-story chimney and slowly started jumping off higher and higher until I was going off the top."
Eric Bergoust's training aside, the sport can also be dangerous. So much so, that paramedics are standing by during the competition. But Eric is philosophical about the chance of injuries.
"Obviously it's a risky sport, and you have to assess how much risk you want to take and what the risks are and if you are really prepared to do what you are about to try to do.," he says. "And over 14 years of doing it, I've learned to kind of look at the weather, look at the trick that I'm doing and either say okay, this is not safe, I should downgrade, do an easier jump. But once I decide that something is safe and I'm okay with it, I can just put it out of my head, because I have logically made that decision. It's really black and white for me. I just put it out of my head and say okay, I'm going to be fine, and accept that and never look back."
Bergoust uses that same sort of philosophy to deal with the fear that terrorists could target the Olympic Games for attack.
"The government is doing a good job. It is out of my control. I think they are going to handle it, and I think it's going to be fine, so I have decided that it will be safe and I don't think about it much," says Eric.
At the age of 32, you might imagine that this will be Eric Bergoust's last shot at Olympic gold. But Eric does not agree.
"I love the sport, too. I love to flip, love to ski and don't want to quit until I have to. I want to go to 2006 also. It gets easier because I have more experience. I crash less. I know when to take time off," he says. "I know how hard to push myself. And experience is huge in our sport, and I feel great. I started working out more since I turned 30, because I thought I would need to, but so far I feel like I'm in better shape than I was in my 20's. "
With that kind of confidence, look for American Eric Bergoust on the podium in Salt Lake City when they hand out the Olympic medals for aerial freestyle skiing.