Why We Compete

Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 10, 2007 3:00 PM

The Washington Post's Eli Saslow was online Monday, Dec. 10 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss Why We Compete, a series exploring why sports endure and what they mean to people. In Part Seven: Identity, he writes about Steve Fossett and his desire to test the limits of human endurance.

A transcript follows.


Eli Saslow: Thanks for checking in on the Why We Compete chat. Only one story left in the series now -- and hence, only one chat left after this -- so don't go saving all those great questions for later! But, just in case you don't fire yours off in time here, please feel free to e-mail me anytime at saslowe@washpost.com

This was sort of an eery story for me, because I started talking with Steve Fossett about the Why We Compete series before his disappearance. I was interested in following his chase of the land speed record, and we talked on the phone a few times. We were also exchanging e-mails about the schedule for test sessions, etc. He always responded to e-mails quickly, but I wrote him one e-mail that went unreturned for three or four days. Then I saw the news story that his plane had disappeared.

Obviously, we decided to go ahead with the story anyway, because both Fossett and the project were still certainly worthy of a longer article. But needless to say, I would have enjoyed working with Steve for longer on this. His adventures -- and his tireless pursuit of records -- really fascinated me.

Anyway...on we go.


Edgemont, Pa.: Some musings on "Identity:"

Chasing world records is such a bizarre pursuit. Why did he need the satisfaction of setting the land speed record? In order to sleep well at night? To feel like he would leave a legacy when he died? Just bored because of all of his wealth?

Eli Saslow: Alright. I liked starting with musings...Now we're talking.

You know, I asked a lot of your questions to Alan Goldberg, the trusted sports psychologist who has helped us compile a graphic for each part of the Why We Compete series. In fact, I think I've talked to Alan enough to channel him a little bit here, so I'm going to give psychology a paragraph-long shot:

A big part of Fossett's life revolved around these records, and the pursuit of them. It became a major part of how he saw himself -- as a record holder. And it became addictive in a way. I don't think it had to do with boredom, so to speak, or with sleeping well (although one probably does sleep well after spending 60 days sailing across the world). I think, for Fossett, it had more to do with how he thought of himself. He was a record holder, an adventurer, and so he had to keep doing those things to maintain his self perception.

OK, that's about as good as I can do without Alan's help. Any other opinions?


Anonymous: What I see here in this story is nothing more than the glorification of a selfish, rich guy who loved attention and who had a big ego. For the life of me, I can't understand why this guy is getting so much credit for being a "hero." There are real heroes out there -- soldiers, doctors, honest politicians -- who deserve our attention. Let's stop focusing on a rich guy who spent all of his money on selfish pursuits.

Eli Saslow: I've seen and heard a few comments like yours, and I'm afraid to say I disagree. I'm not sure that one needs to donate a ton of money or save lives to qualify as a person worth admiring or writing about. There are plenty of "rich guys" who do less with their lives than Steve Fossett did. He made his own money, and he earned the right to spend it however he wanted. By pushing the boundaries of conception so regularly, he helped advance science and several sports.


Cleveland Park, D.C.: Are they looking for a new driver for the rocket/racecar?

Eli Saslow: Yes. Care to audition?

Unless you've graduated from Navy or Air Force test pilot school and have developed some comfort at supersonic speeds, I'm afraid you might not qualify. But Eric Ahlstrom, the project manager, has started to look for a good driver. He's hoping to select somebody soon, because they watn to start testing the car in February.

Really, Eric is in a little bit of a tough spot. He's picking from a small pool of qualified people, and he has to convince one of them to take an extreme risk. Steve Fossett was uniquely willing and qualified -- not necassarily an easy thing to replicate.


Anonymous: Thanks so much for a really facinating story about a facinating guy. But, What are the odds that this car actually breaks the speed record, much less 1,000 miles per hour? That seems like a pretty outlandish goal. It seems like he might have been setting himself up for failure on this one.

Eli Saslow: Good question, thanks. I don't think Fossett set himself up for failure very often. He set his sights on ridiculously high goals and almost always accomplished them. It took him six tries and almost a decade to circumnavigate the world in a balloon -- but he finally did it. It took him two tries to finish the ididarod -- but he did. It took him more than 12 years to complete all of his sailing goals -- but he did.

My guess is that Fossett might not have hit the 1,000 mph mark as quickly or as smoothly as he hoped. But, judging by precedent, he probably would have hit it eventually. Or he would have kept trying until the day he no longer had the ability to drive.


Boston: No question, but praise. This article is a very respectful epitaph. Especially how you delayed mention of his death, and most especially how you ended with the one thing that mattered most -- setting another record. The last sentence is perfect. Life in death, and his quest continues.

Eli Saslow: Thanks so much. I'm thrilled that you liked it.


Fairfax, Va.:: Inspiring piece, Mr. Saslow. Truly an interesting man who had a "renaissance-spirit" about him. We are allowed to create our own purpose in life, and there's something noble about that.

Eli Saslow: Thanks a lot. And yes, in terms of establish life goals and then pursuing them, Fossett setan impressive example.


Anonymous: You mention that Fossett was married for almost 40 years, so, as the wife of a mild adventurer myself, I have to wonder: How in the world did she put up with all of his traveling and dangerous stunts? Wasn't she worried sick?

Eli Saslow: Wow, you're the wife of an adventurer! I'd like to hear more about that...

Peggy Fossett was pretty remarkable, though, in terms of what she put up with. Steve not only took risks -- measured risks -- all the time, but he also spent a good deal of the year traveling, chasing wind patterns around the globe. They never have children, so I'd imagine that afforded Steve a little bit more freedom to pursue these things.

There's a great anecdote in Fossett's autobiography about Peggy, and how she felt about risk taking. Fossett flew them to their honeymoon -- he flew practically everywhere -- and they went to an island destination. On the way back, they nearly ran out of fuel before they made it back to land, and Peggy was extremely nervous. Ever since then, she really didn't want to fly much, especially over water. So Steve realized he would have to pursue these adventures alone.


Decatur: Thanks for the article. I'd just like to say that I still can't get over the fact that nobody has found his plane. That is unbelievable to me. It's not like he went down in 1950 in the middle of some far flung ocean. His plane crashed right here, over land, and we still couldn't find him. How is that possible in this day and age?

Eli Saslow: This is a great question, one that I think several of us are wondering about. Before I traveled out to Reno, I was kind of thinking the same thing: How in the world could they not find this guy? But let me just say, after flying over Nevada, I have a much better idea.

We're talking about the most desolate state in the country here. One of our other sports writers went to college in Reno, and he was telling me that central Nevada and Alaska are the only places in the U.S. with a population density of 0-25 people per every square mile. I mean, we're talking about the middle of nowhere, here. No people. No roads. No cell phone service. Except for the Burning Man festival that happens in the Black Rock Desert for a week or so every year, NOTHING happens out here. And at Burning Man, everything happens -- or so I hear.

Anyway, the area were Fossett was flying encompassed some varies landscapes -- mountains, lakes, playas. Plus, the kind of plane he was flying burns very easily. The trace of his crash could be nothing more than burn marks on the earth, obscured by a large tree or bush.


McLean, Va.: What legal steps need to happen before the request to have Steve Fossett declared legally dead is executed and complete?

I'm wondering whether Steve Fossett will become the Amelia Earhart of this century. Will the wreckage or his remains ever be found?

Eli Saslow: It seems to me that there is a chance the wreckage might never be found. Already, Fossett's family conducted perhaps the largest manhunt for a single person in U.S. history: planes, helicopters, Internet technology, hundreds of search experts -- and to no result. If we didn't find anything then, it seems like it will take a good bit of luck to find him now. It could happen -- a hunter stumbles onto something unusual, or another pilot spots wreckage -- but the odds continue to diminish as time passes, winter snow falls, etc.


San Juan, P.R.: Eli,

Greetings from a rainy day in San Juan. Thought I'd contribute my questions. Two questions for you: did Fossett have any heroes, sports or otherwise? Who did he look up to or idolize in trying to set all these records? Did he ever say?

Also, what did he think of "sport" in America and around the world? Amidst all his travels and adventures, was he still, say, your everyday Dodgers fan? Or were typical spectator/participatory sports not something he was interested in?

I really enjoyed this story. An ironically timed but fascinating tale of a man that I imagine most of us hadn't heard of. And an interesting element to add to the series!

Eli Saslow: Thanks a lot for the thoughtful question. I'm sorry it's raining there, but our luck isn't much better here in D.C. We've got a combination of the rain/sleet thing going on, and I forgot my winter coat today. I'm going to have to venture out for my afternoon coffee in this mess. Very unpleasant.

Anyway, in my conversations with Steve and in reading his autobiography, I gathered that he wasn't a big sports fan in general. He was more of a scientist or adventure or outsdoorsman than a sports fan, so to speak. In terms of idols, he wrote a lot about his father, he took him hiking and helped him become involved in the boy scouts. Steve seemed to credit his father for his own sense of adventure, and I think that qualified him as something of a hero.


Angmering West Sussex, UK: Eli, I have been following the Fosset story.

Your sensitive article I consider the best yet.

There is something about the feel of the whole story, which feels at odds with reality...has he really gone off the stage or is he waiting in the wings.

Well done.

Eli Saslow: Thanks so much for the kind words -- and for reading us from so far away. That's wonderful to see.


Freising, Germany: Being able to cross-country ski for 20 hours without stopping or go three consecutive nights without sleep are definitely unusually rare talents.

Is there any consensus on what made Steve Fossett so legendary in this respect? Was it his willpower, focus and motivation, or was he an athletically gifted individual that exemplifies what we expect from endurance athletes?

Eli Saslow: Great question, thanks. Fossett was not an exceptional athlete, but I think he thrived because of several things that you mentioned: He prepared more meticulously for each adventure than any other athlete I've known or written about; he refused to give up on a goal, no matter how lofty or unrealistic; he performed well on little sleep, which many of his adventures required.

Fossett could also breath better than most people at high altitudes, something he developed by sleeping in a hyperbolic chamber, living in Beaver Creek, Colo., and doing a lot of mountain climbing at a young age. This probably helped his endurance and his breathing during things like ultramarathons. Also, it made him a very capable pilot, as he could often fly his glider plane without needing an oxygen mask.

Eli Saslow:;


Burke, Va.: Eli,

The search didn't find Steve, but it found eight other previously unknown wrecks? Did that solve some mysteries for other folk in the predicament that Fossett's family is in?

Eli Saslow: Yes, it did solve some of those mysteries, and thanks or reminding me of this crazy fact. If anyone is still craving evidence of how desolate this area is, what could be more stunning than this: so many crashes out there that had never been discovered before. Nevada is a crazy, intriguing place. Also, that area is well-known amongst pilots for its steady turbulence. Even commercial flights jostle up and down in that area, to which I can attest.


Bethesda, Md.: My wife is a pilot. I asked her the same question as a poster earlier "How is it possible that Fossett's plane was not found?" She gave the same answer as you. She also added that the manhunt was so large and so encompassing that a couple other planes crashes WERE found! That is pretty amazing, no?

Eli Saslow: Yes, amazing indeed.


Downtown, D.C.:: Good morning. I am curious to know the status of the search for Mr. Fossett. Who is involved in the search and given the advancement of satellite technology, is there something on him which can help searchers find him? I am hoping that he's found, hopefully ALIVE...

Eli Saslow: He didn't really have anything on him to help searchers, which has confused some people. He usually had an emergency watch, which he didn't take with him. He was out for a simple pleasure flight and thought he'd only be gone for a few hours, so he just walked out to the plane in shorts and a T-shirt, holding a bottle of water.

The Internet search led to a lot of clues, none of which panned out. Eric Ahlstrom, the project managed of the Fossett LSR car, helped coordinate all of these tips sent in from satellite images. He got 200 e-mails a day sometimes, but they never went anywhere.


DC: Mr. Saslow: Nice story on a strange bird. Is it me or do you have an affinity for these types? Actually, my question is this: Nevada, Mexico, Texas, West Virginia, American Samoa ... has it occurred to your fine editors at The Post that perhaps this whole series is really just a ploy on your part to accrue ungodly numbers of Frequent Flyer miles? Further, has it occurred to them that your obvious ulterior motive here is to find far-flung niches of your beloved country music? Really, I think for the next Compete story they should send you to, say, the North Pole or Iceland or Greenland or someplace like that, a place where they've never heard of Kenny Chesney...

Eli Saslow: I'm glad you're not my editor, because it sounds like I'd be doing a lot of local stories if you were...

One problem with your theory, though: There is no place in the world where they have never heard of Kenny Chesney. Music that great spreads to even the furthest reaches of the world.


Ironic: Eli,

How ironic that men like Steve Fossett and Scott Crossfield, the famous test pilot, cheated death numerous times in their exploits, ended up dying in rather benign small aircraft mishaps. With today's technology, it seems incredible that they have found no trace of Fossett's aircraft. How can that be?

Eli Saslow: Yes, it's ironic, but it's not necessarily surprising. Even though Fossett was a tremendously talented pilot, he spent so much time in planes that it seems logical for him to go like that. In some ways, it would have been more ironic for him to go quietly, in bed or in a chair.


Washington: Great article. This is mainly a comment for the readers who posted comments at the end of the article. Looking at some of the comments, it seems like a lot of people are just cruel and don't understand. Steve Fossett didn't waste his life. He did inspirational things every day! He inspired a lot of people! What more can you want? Just cause he didn't give every dollar he made to charity doesn't mean he's a rich guy wasting money. That's ridiculous. With that logic, every person who ever spends money for anything they personally want is selfish. Don't hold rich people to different standards. And don't ever, ever, ever say you're happy somebody has disappeared. That's even more dumb.

Eli Saslow: Strong words, thanks. I'll have to take a look at some of the comments you're referencing, because I agree with you.


Salt Lake City: I've been a big follower of the land-speed progression for years. It's a pretty tight-knit community we've got here. Same people come and go and come and go, and you don't get too many outsiders. There's almost a family atmosphere.

So, with that in mind, I'm wondering if Steve Fossett made any enemies because of what he was trying to do: Buy a record that wasn't rightly his and never should be his. How'd people feel about that?

Eli Saslow: Good question, thanks. I think that it was offputting to some folks that Fossett was going after this record. But, the land speed lifers who got to know him spoke highly of his integrity. I think he was starting to win over that community before he disappeared.


Eli Saslow: Thanks again for all of the thoughtful feedback. E-mail me if you have anything more to ask, at saslowe@washpost.com. Until then, enjoy your holidays. I'll be spending my Christmas day working on the final Why We Compete story, which we can chat about at the very end of the year.

Take care, and thanks again.


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