Bergoust falls to younger, gutsier aerialist

PARK CITY, Utah -- The pupils finally beat the teacher.

Eric Bergoust, the defending Olympic aerials champ and the overall World Cup champ, has constantly changed his sport, building new skis from different types of Teflon in his garage and writing papers to the international federation outlining more efficient kicker designs.

And the Missoula, Mont.-born spin doctor was the innovator of the arm movements now de rigeur in the sport. A few years ago, Bergoust discovered that if he moved his arms in various positions -- straight up in the air, tucked in to his chest -- instead of torquing his shoulders, he could start his twists earlier and maintain a straighter position in the air.

"It gave me an unfair advantage for several years," said Bergoust, 32, of his Tilt method.

Tuesday, it was no longer an advantage. Word was, Tilt disciple Ales Valenta of the Czech Republic was going to attempt a quint -- a quintuple-twisting triple flip. Valenta, the only man to throw that trick in competition, landed one at a World Cup event last November.

Bergy had practiced the quint this summer, but he felt his form wasn't good enough. "I thought I could get higher scores with my quads," he said.

Valenta's face was a study in concentration as he visualized the jump, flapping his arms as if directing an airplane. His would be the ultimate leap of faith: The quint is a blind jump, meaning Valenta would not see the ground until the breath before his skis hit the snow. The Czech would have to rely on his midflight body awareness and his coach's urgent last-millisecond commands while he was airborne.

Firing himself off the ramp, Valenta became a blur of impossible physics, twisting twice in his first somersault, then twice again in his next flip, spinning yet once more on his final invert. A beat after his eyes found the snow, his skis touched down. Cleanly.

It was the first time the quint had ever been landed in Olympic history. No one knew quite how to react until his score came up: For all his gutsiness, Valenta's quint had earned him only 129.98 points. He sat in first place, but the air was thick with boos.

"He was extremely underscored," said U.S. mogulist Hannah Hardaway, who was there to cheer on her fiancé, Brian "Curdog" Currutt.

"I told Andy Capicik, 'If Ales lands this, he's going to win,' " Currutt said later.

But for now, it seemed that Bergoust was right after all. Eric had notched the highest score of the day with his first jump, a near-perfectly executed back full-double full-full. At 130.38, his quad had been worth 0.4 points more than Valenta's quint.

Hometown boy Joe Pack wasn't fazed. His final jump, a back double full-full-full, was solid. he faced the crowd and played air guitar on his skis. Then he crossed his skis underneath his neck, morphing into fleshy skull and crossbones, and stuck out his tongue, devil-rock-style. The judges agreed with his enthusiasm, putting him in second place.

After Alexei Grichin, the reigning world champ from Belarus, jumped into third place, the United States had a chance to put two men on the podium. Bergy was the last jumper and gold was his for the taking. Banners waved all over the stadium. "Missoula (heart) Eric!" "Get Big Sky, Eric!" "Go, Bergy!"

"If I were him right now," said a bystander. "I'd be throwing up."

"Man, I wanted to see someone eat it," said another. "The other day, a guy ended up with a mouthful of snow."

Their comments hung in the air like jinxes, as Bergoust stood, skis crossed, awaiting the signal from his coach. When Matt Christensen raised his arms straight up, Eric hopped, pointed his skis downhill and sped down the ramp. But as Bergy launched from the kicker, it seemed he might have overcompensated for the slowness of the snow by starting too high up the jump. As he flipped and twisted, his revolutions looked too fast to land cleanly.

Sure enough, when his skis hit the snow, he fell backward, his shoulders hitting the snow.

Bergy immediately bounced up and skied the rest of the way down, but he knew it was over. So did the crowd, which went dead silent. Up near the kicker, Christensen threw his shovel down in a fit of anger.

As the big screen went in for a close-up of Bergy's face, he looked as if he would vomit or choke with disappointment. And when the 88.11 left him dead last, Bergoust shook Valenta's hand, moving past quickly, his eyes glazed over. "I felt pretty sad for him," Valenta said later.

Bergoust's teammates were equally devastated.

"Eric is a dear friend, and he's been teaching me the ropes for a long time," said Pack, who took the silver in front of a crowd made up mostly of his friends and family.

Currutt hung his head.

"I was so bummed for Bergy," he said. "He's definitely the best jumper out there, and he's always Mr. Cool under these circumstances."

Their overwhelming sense of disappointment was tempered by the fact the envelope had been pushed. To a man, the jumpers agreed that this competition had been one of the best they'd ever seen, in large part thanks to Valenta's eureka moment.

"I decided before training today that the weather was good enough to try the quint," said Valenta. "My speed was slow off the jump, so I thought I might have to pull it more than I did. You have to follow your feeling in the air because you don't spot the landing until the end. It's still a lucky shot for me."

Pack said of Valenta, "He's psycho."

Currutt agreed: "If I have to do that now in competition, I'll quit."

Maybe it was luck, or just good vibes, but even in her absence, aerialist Jacqui Cooper's well-wishing continued to work its Aussie magic. Though the gold-medal favorite had to fly back to Melbourne for surgery on her torn-up left knee Saturday night, she left her championship spirit behind. A day after her teammate Alisa Camplin won gold, Cooper's boyfriend, Alexei Grichin of Belarus, the reigning world champ, won the bronze. (Camplin was working her newfound media darling status in the mixed zone, mugging for the lenses, snapping photos and signing autographs.)

"I told Jacqui that I would jump both for her and for me," Grichin said. "But I still have to call her. My cell phone is in my jacket over there, but everyone keeps wanting to talk to me."

Bergoust stayed and answered questions, though he was clearly distraught. He had prepared so long for this. Next year, when the federation finally allows quadruple flips, Bergoust and his gyroscopic mind will engineer a way to put all the angles and rotations together. But today, all the physics, planning and professorial knowledge he brought to the hillside couldn't stand up to Valenta's bald-faced gutsiness and luck.

"I wasn't going for fourth," Bergoust said. "I was going for first or last. And I got last."

Meanwhile, at the news conference, Valenta sat back in his chair, smiling contentedly. A volunteer offered to fetch him some soda, but he shook his head.

"I've got everything," he said.

Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.