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Ski Free or Die

2/1/2006

Flags wave and cars line up and Nickelback blares in the streets. Thousands of fans in parkas and face paint push toward the mountain. Some cling to beer bottles, stumbling through the brown snow with red faces and redder eyes. A few fall and draw laughter, then get back up and fall again. Above, a prop plane buzzes and dives and swerves, mimicking the inebriated revelers below. It is not even 11 a.m. in Kitzbuehel, Austria, but this is the Hahnenkamm, the Super Bowl of skiing.

High up the hill, the racers launch out of a chute, swaying and diving and skidding to within inches of a wall. One of the early finishers says the piste is so eyeball-rattling he could hardly see. Another admits he was scared. No skier goes the entire course without a wobble. The local hero, Fritz Strobl, falls during the final split, scraping down the hill on his back. And then, with accented glee, the PA announcer calls the name of the next daredevil: "Bodeee Milllllleerrrrr!"