Vinko Bogataj sat on a wooden perch and took a deep breath. Throughout the day conditions deteriorated with heavy snow. Already, he made two attempts: the first a scratch, the second landed at 410 feet. Officials should have postponed the third but there was a concentrated effort to push through the field. So Bogataj bent his knees, took a breath and launched himself.
On March 21, 1970 Bogataj was a 22 year-old ski jumper representing Yugoslavia at the World Ski Flying Championship in Oberstdorf, West Germany. A professional since 15, his best finish was a year before when he placed 57th at the Four Hills Tournament in Bischoshofen, Austria. So far his prize winnings allowed him to buy a color TV and a stove. He supplemented his income by operating a forklift at a local factory.
Forklifts during the week, ski jumping on the weekend, this was Bogataj’s life and there was nothing different about his third jump except for one thing: his increasing speed.
Halfway down the slope, Bogataj knew he was in trouble. Gathering speed was essential, but his current velocity was pushing beyond his control.
To blunt his speed, Bogataj started to lower his body. On a bunny slope it was an easy maneuver. Screaming down the side of a mountain, his body started to tilt to the right. He tried to correct, but it was already too late as he spun like a top before sailing off the right side of the ramp.
At this point Bogataj was facing the right way. Unfortunately, he was upside down.
Although Bogataj was in a dangerous position, he had two things going for him: his rotation and the receding slope of the mountain. He had enough time to twist and turn before slamming into the snow.
The impact was so abrupt Bogataj instantly lost his skis, goggles and dark-blue cap. He literally bounced. He had the ever-living life knocked out of him as he slid into a horrified crowd.
“Oh, baby, what a terrible fall,” Cried the announcer.
When it comes to falls, it was spectacular. To watch it in fast forward is to see a sock monkey being flung across a room. Luckily, Bogataj only sustained a minor concussion. In fact, his accident wasn’t even the worse of the day. (An East German with the unfortunate name of Horst Queck would lose consciousness for several hours after his crash.) In all likelihood Bogataj’s accident would have dissipated into the snowy clouds if it wasn’t for a film crew and four words:
“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat.”
Jim McKay’s intro to ABC’s program The Wide World of Sports forever wedded Bogataj’s fall to “the agony of defeat.” Seasons would go by and he would fall. Year after year the producers kept changing the clips for “the thrill of victory,” but Bogataj’s always remained. Why not? There was no better footage of man succumbing to ice and snow…
I’m not sure why I was jogging. It was cold and windy with banks of snow as hard as cement and sidewalks holding a harsh sheen. Every step courted disaster. There was no reason to be in the elements other than my legs were itching for a run.
When I reached Hennepin Avenue, I noticed the red light. Red lights rarely meant much to me in the middle of a run. On a cold day I definitely wasn’t going to stop. So I eased into the intersection and glanced down the street. There was traffic but not close. I could keep my pace, which I did until my feet started to come out from under me.
Even on the best of days, my life feels hazy – names missed, meandering thoughts, portions of the day blending into previous events. But when I am in the middle of a fall, everything crystallizes. The environment bursts into fantastic detail and I am honed into the moment like a pointed knife.
I knew I was in immediate danger. The fall wasn’t going to kill me. It was the car coming down the street. So before my feet rose any higher, I flung my right hand into the air and twisted my torso. The sudden movement countered my ascent and flattened my body.
Most people sustain injuries in a fall because one portion of their body takes the brunt of the impact: a wrist, tail bone, elbow or knee. I had no intention of meeting the ground with one body part. I would pull my arms in tight. I would meet the ground with my forearms, legs and torso. I would push with my hands. I would shoot my knees into my stomach. And in less time it took me to fall I would be back on my feet. It would be my quickest recovery for it needed to be…
I’m reading Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, a biography about one of the greatest race horses of the Depression Era. Not only does Hillenbrand write about the thoroughbreds of the time but also the jockeys. In one chapter she states that “pound for pound” jockeys are the most physically gifted of athletes. Balance, strength, coordination, jockeys must have it all for they never sit on the horse during a race but instead perch. As Hillenbrand explains: “… the only parts of the jockey that are in continuous contact with the animal are the insides of the feet and ankles – everything else is balanced mid-air.”
This position makes jockeys susceptible to flying off their horses. In fact, the last time I was at Canterbury Park, I witnessed a fall. Actually, I did not see it. I noticed something was wrong when the lead horse swept past without a rider.
I looked back and saw two men rushing onto the track. I turned to the horses moving into the first bank. I returned to the track workers kneeling around the jockey. I looked up and saw the horses streaming along the far side.
Falling off a horse is sometimes inevitable. Being trampled by a pack of thoroughbreds should be avoided at all costs.
The track workers knew this. That is why one of them cradled the injured jockey into his arms and fled for the grandstand …
I opened my eyes and noticed I was moving into a narrow tube. The contraption made a terrible sound like mechanical ants burrowing into a metal tree. It was unpleasant, but I needed to remain still. I knew I was in a CT scan. But why? What happened? More importantly, what went wrong…?
Movement whirled around me as the soccer ball scurried past. I tried my best to seize the action but the rhythms of the game no longer flowed through me.
It had been close to a decade since I last played a competitive game. When it came to skills, I was an echoing reminder of my former self. The dart and the sting were no longer there. But what did it matter? It wasn’t a tournament or even a real game. It was a friendly scrimmage with family and friends at an indoor park in the middle of winter. This time of year it felt good to get out and move.
I tried my best to ease into the action. I quickly passed the ball. I chased down long kicks. I cleared shots on goal. I stayed within myself until the ball rolled in front of me.
I made a move. So did my sister.
Amy was much fleeter reached the ball first.
I may have been old and sluggish but there was no way I was going to run over my sister. So I left my feet and glanced off her hip.
To everybody on the field it looked like Amy wiped me out, but at that moment I felt as nimble as a fox. I even saw this tumble as different from all the others. I wasn’t falling into a less fortunate circumstance. I was falling to avoid a far worse fate…
I sat in a folded bed and stared at the ceiling. The whirl and commotion that greeted me was no longer there. All that remained was a quiet wait.
The ER nurse told me that I was brought in by ambulance for I was involved in a bike accident.
It didn’t add up. Every one of my bike accidents involved sand and gravel embedded into my palms for my hands were the first part extended to guide the rest of the body.
But no abrasions.
I looked into a mirror and noticed the right side of my face scraped from eyebrow to cheek. A black eye lay in between.
Was this the one body part?
The nurse asked if I wanted to call anybody as she handed me a phone.
I let the phone dangle.
Why couldn’t I remember what happened? How could a simple bike ride turn into a complete fiasco…?