In season 17, fun-loving Ghedina reels in fans, targets first Olympic medal


In season 17, fun-loving Ghedina reels in fans, targets first Olympic medal{mosimage}CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy – Kristian Ghedina has to be considered one of the craziest downhill skiers in a sport that requires a touch of lunacy.

After all, not everyone has the guts to hurl themselves down an icy ski slope at speeds in excess of 135 kph (80 mph).

There are more than 60 such men who compete in World Cup downhills on a regular basis, and Ghedina is the only one who has performed a spread eagle on the final jump of Kitzbuehel’s famed Streif course.

The jovial Ghedina pulled the stunt off two years ago. He thought it was going to be his final race in Kitz and he wanted to go out on a memorable note.

When he crossed the line and looked back at the scoreboard and saw that he had posted the fastest time — despite the precious hundredths of seconds lost by the spread eagle — he changed his mind about retirement. Never mind that he eventually finished sixth.

”What was supposed to be my farewell jump instead launched me toward another season and confirmed my desire to be at the Turin Olympics,” Ghedina wrote in his new autobiography, ”Primi e centesimi: la mia vita nella velocita” — ”First-places and hundredths: my life in speed.”

Besides the book’s cover, the stunt is also still memorialized on the front page of Ghedina’s Web site.

Now 36, Ghedina is the oldest member of Italy’s ski team for Torino. In his fifth Olympics, he’s still a medal contender for the host country.

Ghedina has raced in a record 165 World Cup downhills. Besides his 13 World Cup victories, he has won two silver medals and one bronze at the World Championships. The one thing missing from his collection is an Olympic medal.

A Cortina native, Ghedina was the torchbearer of honor when the Torino flame passed through his hometown to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Olympics — the only previous Winter Games in Italy.

Before the torch duties, Ghedina celebrated the occasion by re-enacting his spread eagle stunt — splitting his legs wide apart and holding his arms and poles out.

The performance came during an appearance as a forerunner before a women’s World Cup training session.

Ghedina takes on the forerunner’s role each season for the women’s races, since the men’s circuit does not include Cortina.

”People think I’m making fun of the sport,” Ghedina said, explaining why he doesn’t perform the stunt in races anymore.

”The fans like it, they always ask me about it, it’s something spectacular. I’m the one who would have to put my bones back together, but I don’t like it when people say Ghedina’s a showman or a clown,” he said.

Ghedina has a history of heartbreak.

When he was 15 years old, his mother died in a skiing accident in Cortina. She was the resort’s first female ski instructor and her son’s first coach.

A few years later, Ghedina suffered multiple injuries in a high-speed car crash, leaving him in a coma for seven days and forcing him to relearn how to walk.

He once tried aerials skiing and suffered a crash landing. He had a few slips and slides when he went down Cortina’s bobsled course on his motorcycle.

The auto crash removed his ability to feel out terrain in courses when the weather impedes vision. He excels now in only clear conditions.

If the weather is right for the Olympic downhill on Feb. 12, Ghedina thinks he has a shot at his first Olympic medal.

”For me it’s a great challenge. I’m still able to be competitive, still the best Italian. I’ve been fast enough to finish near the podium several times,” he said.

Ghedina has registered one fourth-place finish and three other top-10 results in downhill this season. Not bad for a skier in his 17th season on the circuit.

He still hasn’t won in more than four years, but his results have made him push back his decision about retirement again.

”I’ll decide at the end of the season whether to go on or not,” he said.

After skiing, Ghedina wants to enter auto racing.

”Ghedina’s just a nice guy,” Bode Miller said last month. ”I think it’s great that he’s still racing.”

So does Daniela Ceccarelli, the 2002 Olympic super G gold medalist and at 32 the oldest member of Italy’s women’s team for Torino.

”He adds a dimension to skiing, it’s not only professionalism but fun, too,” she said. ”For me, Ghedina is skiing. I’m inspired by him.”

Ceccarelli lives in the Olympics zone and thinks Ghedina has a chance, even though the Sestriere course is not considered one of his favorites.

Ghedina won a bronze medal in downhill at the 1997 World Championships in Sestriere.

”I still think it could be good for him. As long as there’s good visibility,” Ceccarelli said. ”This may be his last year and it looks like he’s just starting.”

For the record, Ghedina is not planning any stunts at the Games.

”No, I’m hoping I can win a medal for the fans,” he said.

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