February 10, 2006
King of the hill
Jeff Bean, perhaps Ottawa's best shot at a medal, and his team of high flyers show the Sun how they will turn Turin upside down.
ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- They tower high above the surrounding Adirondacks, twin reminders of an Olympic spirit that remains so wonderfully alive all these years later.

Beneath the mighty ski jumps and the magical five rings, school children -- perhaps with huge dreams of their own already sown in their heads -- race cheerfully in packs on pairs of skis.

In another area of this winter wonderland -- a lovingly well-kept legacy of the 1980 Winter Games -- youngsters take flight on the tiniest of launch pads, the first baby steps toward someday conquering the monoliths.

On a sharp incline just above them, wild-looking ramps stare you in the face, with a brigade of snowsuited men and women chopping up the

snow just below. Above them, the athletes pace about ... Russians and Australians, the latter in their bright red 'Flying Kangaroos' jackets.

Soon you are greeted by an unassuming 29-year-old from Ottawa, who extends a hand and a friendly greeting.

"Welcome to my office," says Jeff Bean.

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The numbers alone are enough to send shivers down a mere mortal's spine.

Jetting down a ski hill at 66 km-h. Launching yourself at a 70% angle off a 13-foot high 'kicker.' Then, a 55-foot drop to another sharply angled hill, this after a series of twists and somersaults in the air. All of it followed by a controlled, smooth landing.

"If everything happens properly, it's like stepping off a chair," said Bean. "It's nothing."

Still, forgive yourself for thinking the high flyers in freestyle skiing's aerials discipline have a zany gene locked up somewhere inside them.

This isn't something for the faint of heart.

'If you asked me to jump off a cliff from 50 feet up," said Calgary's Kyle Nissen, the current World Cup leader, "I'd say 'you're crazy.' "

But flying fools they're not. Behind every world-class aerialist are years and years of dedication to their craft.

"Most people still think it's kind of crazy," said Canadian national team aerials coach Dennis Capicik, a former Olympian himself. "The

people you see doing quad twisting triples have been at it for about 10 years. It's not like you start out chucking stuff like that.

"It's a long process that takes time."

Often, it's a painful one.

"The first time you do triples, you take some (bad falls)," said Bean. "You just have to learn it ... I learned the landing part first, then figured out how to make it pretty after that. It's just a matter of getting confident. If you hit your takeoff and have the right speed, life is good. That's nine-tenths of the battle."

Canadians have had it figured it out better than most. More often than not over the years, the red maple leaf has soared above World Cup podiums around the globe. We've had roaring success at the Olympics, right from the first time the sport joined the five-ring circus in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway.

"There's definitely a history of it in Canada with the Quebec Air Force (in the 1990s)," said Capicik. "Lloyd Langlois, the whole LaRoche family ... they definitely paved the way."

Now there's the latest wave: Bean, Nissen, reigning world champion Steve Omischl of North Bay, and Warren Shouldice, another Calgarian, all headed to Turin with medals clearly in their sights.

A new Air Force, perhaps?

"That's something that somebody else has to give us," Bean said of a nickname. "Let's see what happens at the Olympics first."

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The aerialist's wife still remembers the terrifying tone of the phone message.

"Lindsay, you have to call me," the coach's voice said. "Right now!"

They were on the other side of the world, the coach and the athlete, training in the Australian winter in August 2004. That's when Bean lost control of a jump in the air and landed head-first in the unforgiving snow. The result was devastating: Three fractured vertebrae, a broken nose and a crushed orbital bone around his left eye.

"He looked dead," Lindsay Mullaly, who was in Lake Placid at the time, said of her husband when she saw a video of the accident later.

But Bean, ever the logical person, looks back now and calls the mishap "an absolute great thing."

"Everyone asked me when I came back 'were you scared (to jump again)?' " said Bean, who won a world championship silver medal 196 days after the spill. "(The accident) pissed me off because I made a mistake.

"I was too fast, I made a bad decision in the air. It was a combination of things. I'm never going to do it again."

Bean won't say it, but his wife will: He was inches away from tragedy.

"If the C1 (vertebrae) had broken off, that would have been it. He would have been dead," Mullaly said. "The C7 ... that's the one Christopher Reeve broke (that left the actor paralyzed)."

Mullaly was so shaken, she got herself hired as the freestyle team's videographer for the rest of the season. "I decided I was never going to be on the other side of the world if something like that happened to him again," she said.

It is a reality in their world, but aerialists can't let the fear conquer them, or the consequences can be severe.

"You can't have fear in our sport," said Bean."If you're standing up there before you ski into this jump at 65-70 km-h and you're afraid, it's over. Not over in terms of the Olympics, but over in terms of safety."

A bone-crushing spill adds to the mind game.

"It's definitely a mental sport, more than you would think," said Capicik. "Getting over the mental challenge is the biggest thing, forcing yourself to want to go up there and do it again."

Deidra Dionne knows how rough the struggle can be. The 23-year-old from Red Deer, Alta., tore ligaments in her neck last September in a training mishap in Australia, and also ruptured a disc and strained her spinal chord. Doctors later said she barely escaped paralysis.

Remarkably, she battled her way back to earn a spot on the women's aerials team for Turin. But the 2002 Olympic bronze medallist suffered a chilling relapse at the Lake Placid training camp.

"I felt incredible dread the instant I arrived," Dionne wrote in her cbc.ca online diary. "For the first time since the accident, I stood at the top and didn't feel confident I could make it off safely. Instead of wanting to rise to the occasion, I wanted to cry."

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In the second week of the Games, it will be their time. They will soar into the pitch-black Italian sky as, for the first time, the Olympic aerials finals will be at night.

It will be spectacular.

There is no Olympic event quite like theirs, no feeling the same as soaring high above the snow, while thousands of spectators roar in admiration below them.

"For me, it's just that feeling of being in the air, looking down and being in complete control," said Bean.

"Flat out, it's just cool."

THE SCHEDULE: MEN

CANADA'S AIR FORCE

Qualifying, Feb. 20; Final -- Feb. 23; Women -- Qualifying, Feb. 19; Final, Feb. 22.

Canada's aerials team at the Turin Olympics:

Men: Jeff Bean, Ottawa; Steve Omischl, North Bay; Warren Shouldice, Calgary; Kyle Nissen, Calgary

Women: Veronika Bauer, Toronto; Deidra Dionne, Red Deer, Alta.; Amber Peterson, Thunder Bay.