A BIZARRE THING can happen when you repeat an unnatural motion, like skate-skiing, as intensely as Kris Freeman does. Your muscles literally grow too big. It's called compartment syndrome. In the ten-time cross-country-skiing national champion's case, this happened with his monstrous calves, and the pain was excruciating. "The pressure in my legs was well over twice what it should have been," he says.
But for Freeman, 29, the episode before the 2009 world championships was a hiccup compared with his Type 1 diabetes. So he decided to compete anyway, which made his fourth-place finish in the 15K Classic even more impressive. Especially when you consider that no American skier has won a world-championship medal or any Olympic hardware in cross-country in more than 30 years.
Freeman's diabetes, however, is harder to play through. The disease requires him to be hypervigilant about everything from his caloric intake to the playlists on his iPod. "If I get too fired up before a race," he explains, "I leak adrenaline, which will raise my blood sugar. So instead of listening to 'Welcome to the Jungle,' I might have to listen to 'Patience.' "
It's an apt choice. Vancouver will be Freeman's third Games. And while he was touted as a contender in Turin, there's reason to believe this is his year. Actually, there are several: At 29, he's in his prime. He's healed from surgery he had last year to fix his calves and has a new insulin pump, with no tubes exposed.
Then there's what is essentially a home-field advantage. "We've been training [in Vancouver] since the trails were built," says Freeman. "We know the courses backward and forward."
The one thing he hasn't been doing? Attracting attention. "I've been living in Thornton, New Hampshire, for about a year and a half, and I think some of my neighbors might know that I'm a ski racer now."
Last winter, snowboarder Shaun White, 23, spent some time riding a clandestine halfpipe"the best ever"built just for him behind Colorado's Silverton Mountain. Known as Project X and funded by Red Bull, the 22-foot-deep superpipe incorporated a foam pit for White to bail into as he concocted five new moves for the Olympics. An hourlong special on the project airs January 30 on NBC. You can follow White in Vancouver on Twitter.
OUTSIDE: Why did you need a secret halfpipe? Everybody so knows what you're up to. WHITE: It wasn't planned like that; I wasn't sneaking around. I'd go to local mountains and get swarmed. In Park City, one of my friends got cut off by a kid in the crowd who was watching us. He flew out of the halfpipe and broke his wrist. Tony Hawk has a private ramp. And motocross guys learn tricks in a foam pit. If those guys don't stick their landings, they get severely hurt.
Did you miss having competition around? If you pick somebody else to compete against, you're only going to be as good as that guy. I'm competing with myself. I had a wish list of six tricks and learned all of them. Five have never been done before.
Silverton's not Southern California, huh? The town was wild. It was like the movie Tombstonehitching posts for tying up your horse at saloons. The house we rented had no doors inside. My room was next to the bathroom. I got to know the people I was hanging out with in a strange, strange way.
You're 23 now. Who's the next Shaun White? Some 15-year-old who's at home watching the Olympics. Somebody who'll do our tricks in a totally different way. I hope that kid is far away. It's like, C'mon, man! I just learned these things!
THE SPORT ONCE known as "the Chinese downhill"four racers simultaneously attacking jumps, banked turns, and tabletops in a full-contact race to the finishis suddenly in the Olympics. The U.S. team consists of Daron Rahlves, 36, and Casey Puckett, 37, two former World Cup downhillers with seven Olympics and no medals between them. They won't be alone. Many ski-cross entrants in Vancouver will be World Cup veterans looking for the medal that eluded them. That makes you wonder whether ski-cross is an exciting new event designed to spice up the stodgy Olympics with some X Games verve or a consolation prize for racing's elder statesmen.
"A lot of retiring racers want nothing to do with it," says U.S. Ski Cross coach Tyler Shepherd, who had four Olympic berths to fill, but only Rahlves and Puckett could even finish heats in international competition.
That's because, in addition to being seen as less worthy than racing against the clock, ski-cross is also considerably more dangerous. Heats are often decided by who's left standing after demolition-derby-style pileups. But if the risks make ski-cross a gladiatorial spectacle, they're also its athletic redemption. Ski-cross is to downhill what ultimate fighting is to boxing: It may not require the precision, but few would argue that it isn't a more exciting contest. In Vancouver, no matter who claims the gold, it'll be the rebirth of a former racer who clawed his way back to put it all on the line just one more time. And who doesn't love an Olympic comeback?