MOUNT ALLAN, ALBERTA, FEB. 18 -- Pam Fletcher was scheduled to be the first skier to run the women's downhill at Nakiska this morning. She was thrilled with the first starting position. The way she figured, this was to be her finest moment in 22 years of skiing.
Fletcher, at 25 the United States' best women's downhill racer, said she felt great. She was a long-shot for a medal, but a top 10 finish was within reach. She couldn't wait to begin. The daughter of the operator of a ski resort near Boston, she had finally reached the Olympics. This would be her only Olympics, too, because she plans to retire from skiing next year.
"I was so confident, so focused," she said later, fighting back tears. "Then, for this to happen. That was the killer."
Little more than an hour before her race, she completed a practice run down the mountain and turned onto a narrow connecting trail, commonly known as a catwalk, to reach the chairlift for the ride back to the top. Still traveling at a high rate of speed, she spotted an Olympic committee volunteer moving toward her on the catwalk, also on skis.
There was room for both of them on the trail, but, trying to avoid each other, they shifted in the same direction. A second later, they collided head-on.
Fletcher broke her right fibula (the small bone in the lower leg) and bruised her right elbow. She will miss all three of the races she was scheduled to run in the Olympics and said she probably will be out for six weeks. The volunteer, a 27-year-old Calgary ski instructor named Steve Lounds, suffered ligament injuries to his left knee and other bumps and bruises.
Solemnly, he said it could have been worse.
"We hit very, very hard," he said. "It blew me out of both my skis and blew her out of one of hers."
"I felt like I hit a tree," she said.
She said she and Lounds lay on the snow, dazed, awaiting help.
"I was screaming," she said. "He was groaning. We just had a grand old time up there."
Ironically, the race that she was preparing for later was postponed due to high winds at the mountain and rescheduled for noon Friday. The same thing happened to the men's downhill on Sunday.
After being taken on a stretcher to the infirmary at the ski resort, Fletcher tried to walk on her own.
"I felt it grind and pop, and that was it," she said.
A temporary fiberglass cast was applied until X-rays could be taken.
Lounds, who at 6 foot 2 and 220 pounds is a foot taller and 90 pounds heavier than Fletcher, also needed treatment. According to Olympic officials, Fletcher's crash helmet hit Lounds' chest.
Fletcher and Lounds both left Nakiska on crutches.
This was Fletcher's second freak accident on this mountain in 14 months. In December 1986, preparing for a North American circuit downhill race, she fell and suffered bruised kidneys and a concussion, blacking out for two hours.
There was concern here after the collision that something should be done to prevent another such accident, but no one seemed to know what could be done.
"It's really sad," Fletcher said. "I wasn't snow plowing. I was moving . . . But what can I do? I could get hysterical, but what would that do?"
For a U.S. ski team riddled by injuries, it was another disastrous blow. "We haven't had the best of luck this year," Fletcher said.
An hour after she was injured, she was in her Team USA gray ski outfit, sitting at the bottom of the mountain, waiting for the race that eventually was postponed. She sat in the bleachers with her leg propped up, explaining over and over again how one freak moment had ruined her Olympics:
"It still really hasn't completely hit me. Right after it happened, I was pretty crushed. You work so hard for this. This is a dream. To feel so confident . . . I can't believe this is happening . . . It's just a bummer."
"I really feel for Pam," Lounds said. "It's just unreal to think of the training and time that she put into it and then not being able to compete."