AFP (Paris) – Dec 10, 2007 – Justin Davis – Just ask alpine skier Antoine Deneriaz.
The Frenchman caused one of the biggest upsets of the Turin winter Olympics in 2006 when he stunned American Bode Miller and Austrian Michael Walchhofer, both former world champions, to win gold in the men’s downhill.
But weeks later, he began a different descent which culminated in his recent decision to bring an end to his career at the age of 32.
In March 2006, Deneriaz came off his Olympic cloud in spectacular style when he suffered knee injuries from a downhill crash at the World Cup finals in Are, Sweden.
The psychological damage, however, proved deeper than the physical scars.
When Deneriaz returned to the World Cup circuit earlier this season, he was raring to go, at least physically.
But inside, the belief and confidence that a speed skier needs to face the considerable risks of his sport had gone.
“I just don’t feel I’m at a level where I can realistically compete with the best,” said Deneriaz, who prior to his Olympic gold had only won three World Cup races.
“The downhill is a discipline in which you need to be brimming with confidence. I needed to feel that confidence, but it just wasn’t there.”
Lack of confidence and apprehension can often be summed up in one word – fear.
Dr John F. Murray, a prominent sports psychologist in the United States, where he has worked with many different athletes in overcoming psychological obstacles, sympathises with the Frenchman.
“If the once brave and fearless, or fear-inspired, athlete has a traumatic accident or injury, one fallout can indeed be a change in their perceptions of invulnerability and an added fear of future performances,” Dr. Murray told AFP.
“Add to this the high risk sport, and you have an athlete who needs counselling or sports psychology mental coaching to help him overcome the obstacle.
“It’s analogous to a child learning a sport for the first time at the age of five, where complete fluidity of movement predominates before too much thinking starts to get in the way.
“Once an athlete has a traumatic accident, the natural fear mechanism may kick in and cause all kinds of problems – which is really just our natural reactions to threat which have evolved to alert us to danger.”
Standing over six feet tall, the powerfully-built Deneriaz would not look out of place in a rugby or ice-hockey team, but reflecting on his March 2006 crash he admitted: “It was the first time I fully realised how risky skiing is. You just can’t take the downhill lightly.”
And while he has worked with a sports psychologist for many years, even the effectiveness of their skill has its limits.
Less than three weeks ago the Frenchman succumbed to the inevitable when the thought of hurtling down the mountain at speeds in excess of 100 km/h simply got the better of him.
At the World Cup downhill in Beaver Creek, Colorado, Deneriaz decided he wasn’t even going to race.
“It was while I was training that I decided. During the recon of the race, I just didn’t feel right,” he said.
“I was walking hesitantly to the start line, and I knew it was going to be the last downhill of my career.”
French Olympic downhill champion Antoine Deneriaz gives a press conference, on 05 December in Annecy, to announce that he is retiring from skiing. The 31-year-old Frenchman was a shock gold medallist in skiing’s blue riband event at the Turin Olympics in February 2006, but has struggled with his form and fitness ever since.
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.