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Frustrated Downhiller Wilkie Becomes the Fastest Human on Skis

October 11, 1987|MIKE CLARK | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Graham Wilkie calls himself a frustrated downhiller. That's quite a confession for the fastest human on skis.

Had things gone differently 12 years ago, the 28-year-old Briton might have spent his competitive years on the World Cup ski circuit, racing against the likes of Franz Klammer. Instead, he developed into the world's premiere ski speedster, reaching a record 132.06 m.p.h. at Les Arcs, France, last April.

"The system in the U.K., when I was 16, was such that it was very difficult to get into World Cup downhill racing," Wilkie said. "Unless you knew somebody, or your parents had lots of money, it was very difficult. The attitude of U.K. people was, 'If we don't know you, you must be no good.' It's not so much nowadays, because training methods have changed, but in the mid-1970s it was very negative.

"I took notice of the people who said you can't do that, and I went to college and into motorcycle racing," Wilkie said. "Then I was in Les Arcs for the world championships and I saw Steve McKinney and Franz Weber doing 120 m.p.h., and I fell in love with it."

He fell for it in quite a different way in 1984 during a practice run at Mount Bachelor, Ore. Like the first time he cracked 100 m.p.h., his first high-speed crash is something he'll never forget.

"It was the first time I'd really done well, my second season, and I was tied for fastest in training," Wilkie recalled. "I went through the timing, stood up and went to put some weight on my left ski for a direction change. But I put too much weight on and the ski went in. It was just like someone ripped it off my foot.

"I cartwheeled eight times in about two seconds. I remember blue-white, blue-white, blue-white, from seeing the snow and then the sky as I tumbled. I got a headache, and while I'm still sliding along at 50 m.p.h., I did an inventory and everything worked. I ended up with a cracked bone in my wrist."

Ski racers fall down occasionally, and at times body repairs are needed. It is the nature of the sport. That doesn't mean, Wilkie notes, that skiers, particularly in his selected field, are crazy.

"The risk implied by speed skiing is huge," he said. "People think it's so dangerous. There's only a few people in the world who can do it. A (World Cup) downhiller can't do it right away.

"But most good skiers could ski at 85-90 m.p.h. on a good track if they've got a good positive mental attitude. The idea is to keep the two boards going straight."

Within three years of that terrifying crash, Wilkie was the fastest man in the world. In the process, he surpassed the deeds of McKinney, the Californian who was the first to break 200 kilometers an hour, and Weber, the Austrian whose record fell last April.

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