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A Controlled Freefall

Speed skiing is the fastest non-motorized sport in the world. A race is short but intense: accelerated by gravity, the skiers drop down a seemingly vertical wall of ice. Approximately ten seconds later they enter a timing area at a chilling speed of 200 km/h (125 mph). After passing the timing gates, the skiers must carefully come to a halt. Each run only takes about 30 seconds, but it's a frightening adrenalin rush. The skiers must battle drag forces from the wind and handle tremendous vibrations on their skis while maintaining proper aerodynamic form. A fall can result in broken bones, skin burns due to friction or worse.

It's by no means simple to reach such incredible speeds without any form of propulsion.A proper tuck is essential for reaching maximum speed. The boots of the speed skier force the body position in a sharp forward lean. The head of the skier is lower than his butt so that the airflow pushes him down. But the tuck position varies from skier to skier, and the optimal tuck position also varies with speed.

Just as important as proper form is the proper equipment. Skis are wider and much longer than regular alpine skis, and usually weigh more for maintaining momentum (2.20-2.40 m in length, 14.5 kg per pair maximum). Ski poles are curved so that they bend around the body, and are usually filled with lead to weigh them down. Speed suits are made from polyurethane/polypropylene to cut down the drag and thus allow more speed. They also cause the skier to slide instead of tumble in case of a crash. The skiers wear foam fairings around their legs to further enhance streamline. Helmets are mandatory, and also serve a double functionality with respect to aerodynamics and safety. The helmets are usually custom-made to fit the racer's body size and tuck position.

A speed skiing event typically spans three days: Day 1 is a voluntary training day, Day 2 is a mandatory training day to determine the run order for competitors, and Day 3 is the official competition day. From top to bottom, the track comprises 3 parts: a launching area, a timing zone, and a run-out area. The launching area has a very steep slope of 50 degrees or more. The final 100 m of the competition track are used for measuring the speed of each competitor. The run-out area is for braking. The slope of the run-out area must decrease progressively, and preferably end with a slight counter slope. It is not easy to come to a complete stop from 200 km/h. Competitors must slowly untuck themselves and use their body as an air brake.

Although the sport has advanced significantly during the 1990s, speed skiing is by no means a new sport. The first unofficial speed ski record was set in 1874 (Tommy Todd, 141 km/h/87.6 mph): although the time measuring for this run was probably inaccurate, it's still quite an amazing feat on primitive wooden Telemark skis. The first official record (Gustav Lantscher, 105.675 km/h / 65.663.6 mph) was significantly less, but speeds have gone up dramatically since. The large improvement in speed in the 1990s is attributed to the changes in grooming of the track. Since the early 1990s, grooming machines are winched down to make the track safer and faster. The sport is actually relatively safe. Speed skiing was a demonstration sport during the 1992 Olympics. Out of the 450 attempted runs during the Olympics, only 4 skiers fell.

The current world record holder is Philippe Goitschel with an astonishing 250.700 km/h (155.777 mph); the first skier to break the 250 km/h mark.

Men's Speed Ski records


1874   La Porte    Tommy Todd         141.000 km/h ( 87.613 mph) 1
1930   St. Moritz  Gustav Lantschner  105.675 km/h ( 65.663 mph)
1931   St. Moritz  Leo Gasperl        136.600 km/h ( 84.879 mph)
1947   Cervinia    Zeno Colo          159.292 km/h ( 98.979 mph)
1955   Portillo    Ralph Miller       175.402 km/h (108.990 mph) 2
1959   Sestriere   Edoardo Agraiter   160.174 km/h ( 99.528 mph)
1960   Cervinia    Luigi DiMarco      163.265 km/h (101.448 mph)
1963   Cervinia    Alfred Plangger    168.224 km/h (104.530 mph)
1963   Portillo    Dick Dorworth      171.428 km/h (106.520 mph)
1963   Portillo    C.B. Vaughn        171.428 km/h (106.520 mph)
1964   Cervinia    Luigi DiMarco      174.757 km/h (108.589 mph)
1970   Cervinia    Morishita Masaru   183.392 km/h (113.955 mph)
1971   Cervinia    Alessandro Casse   184.143 km/h (114.421 mph)
1973   Cervinia    Alessandro Casse   184.237 km/h (114.480 mph)
1974   Cervinia    Steve McKinney     189.473 km/h (117.733 mph)
1975   Cervinia    Pino Meynet        194.384 km/h (120.785 mph)
1976   Cervinia    Tom Simons         194.489 km/h (120.850 mph)
1977   Portillo    Steve McKinney     195.200 km/h (121.292 mph)
1978   Portillo    Steve McKinney     200.222 km/h (124.412 mph)
1982   Les Arcs    Steve McKinney     201.230 km/h (125.039 mph)
1982   Silverton   Franz Weber        203.160 km/h (126.238 mph)
1983   Silverton   Franz Weber        208.092 km/h (129.302 mph)
1984   Les Arcs    Franz Weber        208.937 km/h (129.827 mph)
1987   Les Arcs    Graham Wilkie      212.514 km/h (132.050 mph)
1987   Portillo    Michel Prufer      217.008 km/h (134.843 mph)
1987   Les Arcs    Michel Prufer      223.741 km/h (139.026 mph)
1992   Les Arcs    Michel Prufer      229.299 km/h (142.480 mph)
1993   Les Arcs    Philippe Goitschel 233.000 km/h (144.779 mph)
1995   Vars        Jeff Hamilton      242.000 km/h (150.372 mph)
1997   Vars        Philippe Billy     243.000 km/h (150.993 mph)
1999   Les Arcs    Harry Egger        248.104 km/h (154.165 mph)
2002   Lech        Harry Egger        248.280 km/h (154.274 mph)
2002   Les Arcs    Philippe Goitschel 250.700 km/h (155.777 mph)


Women's Speed Ski records


1867   La Porte    Lottie Joy          79.003 km/h ( 49.090 mph) 3
1963   Cervinia    Emanuel Spreafico  127.138 km/h ( 79.000 mph)
1965   Cervinia    Kristl Staffner    143.230 km/h ( 88.999 mph)
1978   Portillo    Cathy Breyton      165.000 km/h (102.526 mph)
1980   Silverton   Cathy Breyton      170.268 km/h (105.800 mph)
1982   Les Arcs    Annie Breyton      175.353 km/h (108.959 mph)
1982   Silverton   Marti Martin-Kuntz 179.104 km/h (111.290 mph)
1983   Silverton   Kirsten Culver     194.384 km/h (120.785 mph)
1984   Les Arcs    Melissa Dimino     200.780 km/h (124.759 mph)
1987   Les Arcs    Jacquelyn Blanc    201.005 km/h (124.899 mph)
1988   Les Arcs    Torja Mulari       214.413 km/h (133.230 mph)
1992   Les Arcs    Torja Mulari       219.245 km/h (136.233 mph)
1995   Vars        Karin DuBouchet    225.000 km/h (139.809 mph)
1997   Les Arcs    Karin DuBouchet    229.008 km/h (142.299 mph)
1997   Vars        Carolyn Curl       231.660 km/h (143.947 mph)
1999   Les Arcs    Karin DuBouchet    234.528 km/h (145.729 mph)
2002   Les Arcs    Karin DuBouchet    242.260 km/h (150.533 mph)



Notes:
1. Unofficial. Details on the timing accuracy unknown.
2. Timed on a stopwatch with 1/10 sec. accuracy. Perhaps
   not the first person to break the 100 mile barrier.
3. Unofficial. Only the time was reported. It is assumed 
   that Ms. Joy ran the men's 1230 ft. speed track.

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