The thick snowflakes swirled and danced around Eric Bernotas as his victory in Thursday's World Cup skeleton race became official. Bernotas smiled broadly and blinked, accepting handshakes and congratulations and a bouquet of flowers. Bernotas blinked again. Then again. Then again. And again. But there were no tears. He was not trying to stifle emotion.
As the snow fell and the victory settled and the cameras approached, Bernotas confronted, as he often does, a private problem that refuses to stay out of the public realm.
Bernotas, 34, defeated a field of 33 sliders for a major international victory with the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, just three months away, then wrestled, as he does every day, with the physical fallout from Tourette's Syndrome. Just five years after stumbling into the sport on a lark, Bernotas has become arguably the top slider -- certainly a favorite to win one of the U.S. Olympic team spots -- for a nation expected to contend for several Olympic skeleton medals.
Soon after the race, Bernotas shivered happily in the freezing temperatures as he addressed reporters, saying he felt pleased to have seized the unexpected second chance this day offered. Because of the poor weather conditions, the first run was scratched -- great news for Bernotas, who was 13th after a disappointing trip.
The second time down, Bernotas topped the field, winning in 55.42 seconds, .29 faster than Canada's Paul Boehm and .47 faster than American Zach Lund.
"It was more of a thankful relief than a jubilation," Bernotas said of his third top-three finish since he began competing on the World Cup circuit last year. "Just to have another opportunity to have a second run after they threw the first one out. It was just something I felt inside . . . . I believed I could do it."
The more Bernotas talked about the day's small comeback, the more it began to sound like a metaphor for his life. Though he had never seen a skeleton sled before he happened upon a tryout camp at Lake Placid in 2001, he had long known the feeling of barreling downhill, head-first and out of control.
Bernotas doesn't know whether the facial tics and habitual grunts associated with Tourette's led to the drug and alcohol abuse that sidetracked him while an undergraduate at West Virginia University. But he does know he felt socially estranged and despondent. The worse he felt, the more he drank. The more he drank, the more marijuana entered the picture. One problem bled into the others.
"I was uncomfortable being myself," he said. "What alcohol and drugs did for me was they took me away from having to be me."
He wasn't a dangerous drunk, he said. Why, he could barely get off of his couch. He didn't want to do anything except be invisible. It was hard to do that with the tics. Sometimes it was winking, sometimes a jerking of his arm or hand. Occasionally it was a vocal tic, an embarrassing grunting. At times, the tics were disruptive at movies or in class. The marijuana and alcohol relaxed his body. They pushed away the hopeless thoughts. They were better than medicine.
"Alcohol just happened to be a substitute for medication," Bernotas said. "I was in such a hole, it just took so long to do something about it. . . . The more you don't do, the more you feel unworthy. The depression feeds off of itself. It goes into this cycle."
Bernotas doesn't recall the name of the man who helped him, a campus outsider whom Bernotas contacted with the hope of marketing a recruitment video for the university. But frustrated by Bernotas's apparent inability to meet deadlines, the man started asking questions. He heard enough answers to recommend that Bernotas see a doctor. Only then, in his fifth year, did Bernotas begin to understand the crisis his life had become.
He summoned his parents to campus. He talked for the first time about his problems to his brother Allan, now 31, a former lacrosse player at Villanova. And he became determined to unravel the knots tying up his life by falling back on the athletic skills that brought him fulfillment in high school.
For years after college, he worked hard-labor jobs during the day, cutting concrete, doing landscaping. After work, he would train like crazy -- for what he didn't know. Allan recalled his brother hitching a tire to his back with a rope and running hills at a local park.
"He was always working hard all day long, doing manual labor," Allan said by phone from Lexington, Ky., where he works as a horse trainer. "I didn't think he was crazy; I just didn't know how he did it."
Said Eric Bernotas: "I decided to train to live."
Bernotas was well out of college when he and his girlfriend made a wrong turn and ended up in Lake Placid. They saw signs for skeleton tryouts. They turned into the Verizon Sports Complex, the site of Bernotas's victory today.
"I had a feeling this was something I needed to do, and she pushed me to do it," he said. "After my first run, I was terrified. But I found the courage to go down for my second run and I was hooked."