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The first person to ski downhill at more than 124 mph (200 km/h) was a speed champion who trained his mind with yoga.
When Steve McKinney appeared on the steep slopes above Cervinia (Italy) in 1974, the tight-knit community of ski racers did not understand what the long-haired American hippie was doing at the famous speed competition. McKinney asked an Italian racer if he could borrow his skis for the race. Though initially laughed at, the Italian then hesitantly agreed to lend his expensive skis to the foreigner who, at 6 feet, 3 inches (1.92 m), looked like a Viking warrior. Later McKinney raced down the dead straight track faster than everyone else, setting a new world record at over 117 mph (189 km/h).
How did he manage it? “I discovered the middle path of stillness within speed, calmness within fear, and I held it longer and quieter than ever before”, McKinney wrote in a 1975 article for “SKI Magazine”. He skied at speeds where a fall could burn him as his aerodynamic, sleek plastic suit could ignite from friction with the snow. “You might feel fear before the run and sometimes afterward, but not during. There’s not enough time”, McKinney explained.
As a teenager, he contracted rheumatic fever and was nearly paralysed for an entire summer. Rather than drowning in self-pity, McKinney turned to books and music, spending hours reading about spirituality and history and memorising poems. “It was this introspective, spiritual side that informed his athletic side, and his ability to pursue outrageous goals in the face of enormous danger was due to a quieter spiritual reckoning rather than flagrant self-promotion that drives many extreme athletes”, explained his sister Tamara McKinney, a former ski champion who won 18 World Cup races.
The young Steve recovered and evolved into a talented downhill racer. But he dropped off the U.S. downhill Ski Team early, because of “hare-brained ski politicians”, as he called them.
Steve McKinney skis Mammoth Mountain (East California) in the 1970s in his usual style: fast and tucked.
In 1972 McKinney became interested in speed skiing. Plans to compete at the speed race in Cervinia were shattered by a climbing accident that broke his back. The rebel athlete spent much of the following year in a body cast.
McKinney once again had time to read. Besides learning about speed skiing techniques, he was studying Buddhism. In 1974 he was ready to break the speed world record in Cervinia. McKinney had no coach, but trained with yoga, long cross-country ski trips around Lake Tahoe and rock climbing. “It quiets my mind so I can make the right move quickly”.
On 1st October 1978, McKinney stood at the top of the descent in Portillo, in the Chilean Andes, wearing his Darth-Vader-like helmet and 235 cm skis. “The faster my body travels, the slower my mind seems to work”, he explained. “In the crescendo of speed, there is no thought, no sound, no vision, no vibration. It is simply instinct and faith.”
With an 80% decline for the first 800 m (2,624 ft), McKinney kicked off into nearly free fall. It was virtually like jumping off a cliff, the only way a human being can accelerate to high speeds in such a short time from their power alone. After some breaths the skier, wearing his skin-tight suit, passed the first photoelectric barrier, and less than two seconds later, the second photo sensor 100 m (328 ft) away. The Longines equipment clocked the time precisely to a thousandth of a second calculating a world-record speed of 124 mph (200.222 km/h).
The grandfather of speed skiing set further records in 1982 when he hit 125 mph (201.200 km/h) and in 1987 with 130.4 mph (209.800 km/h). Meanwhile sporty McKinney became a dedicated hang-glider; but not in the usual spots, he was searching for the ultimate place. An avid mountaineer, in 1986 he took his glider up to Mount Everest’s West ridge at 26,000 ft (7,925 m), becoming the first man to hang glide from the top of the world.
Skiing faster than anyone else, flying from the tallest mountains and breaking his back in a climbing accident, McKinney tempted fate many times. However, in the end, it was not a dangerous adventure that sealed his fate, but rather a trivial traffic accident. In a foggy night in November 1990, driving back to Tahoe, McKinney was parked on the side of a highway to take a break, when a car suddenly crashed into his vehicle.
Steve McKinney celebrating his first victory in Cervinia (Italy) in 1974.
McKinney broke the 124 mph (200 km/h) barrier at Portillo (Chile) in 1978.
He joined the U.S. Ski Team as a downhill specialist.
He won the “Kilometro Lanciato” (flying kilometre) speed race in Cervinia (Italy) with a speed of 117.4 mph (189.5 km/h), setting a new world record.
McKinney invented rubberised ski suits and special aerodynamic helmets, both of which would become standard equipment in the sport.
McKinney and Jim Bridwell successfully skied down the Denali (Mount McKinley, 20,310 ft/6,190 m).
McKinney set his last world speed skiing record of 130.4 mph (209.8 km/h).
Steve McKinney after winning the “Kilometro Lanciato” (flying kilometre) in Cervinia (Italy) with a speed of 117.4 mph (189.5 km/h) setting his first world record.