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Life in the fast lane

It takes something special to ski downhill, where gravity is harnessed and worked overtime in the pursuit of milliseconds, and slopes of snow are replaced with walls of ice. Winning World Cup races, or competing in multiple Olympic games, takes something even more extraordinary and it’s easy to understand why few skiers remain at that level for long. But for Steven Nyman, who has held his place firmly amongst the world’s downhill elite for more than a decade, it’s about a life of progression.

Growing up and skiing on a small mountain in Sundance, Utah, a life of racing slalom was as natural as the surrounding summits, and at twenty years old Steven announced his presence on the skiing world, winning the Junior World Champs, followed soon after with a fifteenth position in his World Cup slalom debut. Thanks for skateboarding, however, slalom soon made way to downhill and speed.

— It’s an odd turn of events, but I broke my leg skateboarding, and as I was getting back to skiing, the quick slalom turns started to impact on my ankle, so I decided to try some more downhill instead. Luckily I was pretty good at it, which seems to stem from the little hill I grew up on as there’s a distinct front and back to the mountain there, with a flat area in between. As a kid I had to figure out how to go fast on that area as I wanted to keep up with the college racers and the big guys on the team. It’s from that little plateau that I must have developed my gliding skills, which is funny as I now have one of the best glides in the world.

Being at the pinnacle of any sport for so many years is tough, requiring a mental and physical strength, that can be hard to sustain, but for Nyman the constant questioning and willingness to seek out new ways to improve has not only helped is racing, but his perspective on many other things too.

— I started my World Cup tour with some good energy. I was fifteenth in my first slalom race, and in my first year as a downhill racer I came in fourth, followed the year after by my first win. It was a fast rise to the top, everything happened quickly and I had a lot of fire, so I said yes to everything, “Let’s try this!”, “Wow, that’s cool!”. But once all these opportunities opened up I stretched myself, saying yes to everything. In the end I ended up with a lot of injuries and other issues to deal with. Today it’s different, and with age I’ve learned to say no, and how to stay at the top consistently. I feel more comfortable skiing now, as it’s no longer skiing on pure guts and energy and taking lots of risks. Now I have a greater understanding of skiing and I’m more calculated, especially in training, which is still very hard, but a lot smarter, such as trying to get better at performing under fatigue, which is a big part of a race run.

For many competitive athletes, winning is the only thing that matters. Everything else is secondary to being able to step up to the top step, and it doesn’t really matter how it was achieved. For others, like Nyman, it is the goal, but performance takes on a broader perspective.

— I know I can win and I know I can compete with all the top guys. But I can’t control the competition, I can only control myself. So I want to remain focused on my run, the picture I want to paint and creating the internal conviction about my abilities, that this is what I need to do and this is what I’m going to do. Sometimes I’ve done that, and I’ve won. Sometimes I’ve done that and I’ve been second or third, but I’ve crossed the finish line knowing that’s what I set out to do. And that’s what I’m proud of doing because that was my vision.

Living life in the fast lane, literally, downhill skiers need to have a feeling, almost a relationship, to speed. But if they fall for it too much, the odds are that it will eventually hurt them. Steven may have taken risks in his youth but his love for speed has not faded.

— I enjoy speed. But that’s something that has developed through years of development. We’re not adrenaline junkies. We’re not crazy. This is something that’s calculated and which has been built up over time. The foundation comes from being a five-year-old and skiing the local ski hill, getting ever stronger year after year.

After a decade of elite racing, and following the birth of his daughter a couple of years ago, it would be fair to assume the hunger to win was easing, but it’s still there, as strong as ever. But with a perspective that it cannot be achieved at any cost.

— Racing downhill is something I worked hard for my entire life. This is where I make my living and I am proud to be one of the best in the world. Naturally, I want to keep pushing down that path, as that is the one I have forged. But then there are the times I get so much enjoyment out of being with my daughter; I know I never want to end but I also see the balance that I need to strike so I can have an active life with her, unhindered by knee replacements or other injuries. But I believe that you have to push the limits in several ways to make you feel like you’re living. That is life, and I guess that’s what hasn’t changed; life is about progression.