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    Friday, February 13, 1998

    'What If?' will haunt Canadians

    By JIM O'LEARY -- SLAM! Sports
     HAKUBA -- Edi Podivinsky and Brian Stemmle -- two ski racers, one dream and, this morning, one question: What if?
     It is a common question the day after the Olympic downhill. The nature of this event -- in which once every four years the world's most daring ski racers assemble for a two-minute showdown -- ensures that someone will be left to wonder about what might have been, if only ...
     Four years ago, Podivinsky had the day of his life, placing third and winning an Olympic bronze medal. So there was no "what if" that day. But yesterday, after placing fifth, you knew what he was thinking as he studied the scoreboard, seeing that he missed a second Olympic medal by just 8/100ths of a second.
     Not far away, Stemmle was in his own hell. He had promised to attack Hakuba Mountain like he'd attacked no other course in his career. And he did. Starting 20th, his time on the top half of the course was the fastest in the field. He seemed poised to gain a medal.
     Downhill racing is like no other Olympic sport. There are any number of things that can go wrong as racers hurtle down a mountain at 100 km/h. It's not like, say the 100-metre sprint, where racers go in a straight line in a controlled situation. Skiers contend with changing snow, uneven terrain, wind gusts, finicky equipment and, of course, fear.
     To win an Olympic downhill medal, everything must fall into place. Yesterday, the world's No. 1 downhiller, Hermann Maier, got too wide on a turn and, at high speed, clipped a fence and became airborne. He'll have to wait four years to make amends.
     Stemmle will not have another Olympics. He has been to four Games, and yesterday's race was his swan song. For 62 seconds he seemed poised to make a grand exit. Then he ran into the Gods of the mountain.
     "It all happened so quickly," he said. "I knew I was skiing well. Everything seemed to be working as planned. Then I guess I lost my concentration for a second."
     In that second he got wide of his line and, at such a high speed, was unable to pull himself back in time. He missed a gate and felt a sick feeling well up in his stomach as he realized his Olympic career had ended just 45 seconds and a possible medal away from the finish line.
     "This is hard," he said. "It's really hard. I've been in four Olympics and I've bombed out in three. I feel right now like this was another opportunity lost."
     Podivinsky, meanwhile, was standing in the finish area replaying his race over and over again in his mind, hitting the stop button at numerous spots where he could seen those precious 8/100ths of a second slipping away. He counted 10 places where he could have made up that time.
     "Any one of those could have made the difference," he said. "It's going to be awfully tough to go back and look at the tape of this one."
     The most obvious of Podivinsky's miscues came high on the mountain when he got too low and, as his hand touched the snow, lost the grip on his ski poll. Hurtling at full speed, the strap became tangled on his wrist and he had to reach over with his right hand to free himself.
     "When something like that happens, you feel like a total doughnut," he said. "I expected to be three seconds behind the leaders. Then when I saw how close I was ..."
     He felt sick.
     "I guess maybe I shouldn't be so down. I was third in 1994 and fifth this time. I'll be able to look back years from now and be pleased with my Olympic history."
     Stemmle will not be able to say the same. A combination of bad luck, injury and faux pas kept him out of the top 20 in each of his four Olympics. Throughout the week he had spoken of his resolve to remove that blemish from his career.
     "The first three words that came out of my mouth this morning were 'This is my day,'" Stemmle said. "I didn't have to force them out. They just came to my mind as soon as I woke up."
     That feeling stayed with him through his warmup and through the first 60 seconds of his race. He felt good -- strong, confident, in full control. Then, as quickly as it came, the positive feeling was lost.
     Podivinsky sympathized with his friend. Winning an Olympic medal, he said, is the greatest feeling he has experienced as an athlete. Looking back years from now, he knows he'll be thinking of himself and Stemmle, and asking what if.
     Stemmle, leaving the course, was being less philosophical.
     "I'm going to go out and get hammered," he said.
     As he said it, he wasn't smiling.