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Vogtli goes down swinging, enjoys the ride with no regrets

SAUZE d'OULX, Italy -- Imagine what's going through your head if the reason you woke up every day, the reason you logged all those miles traveling the world, the reason you came back after insisting you were finished, the reason your engagement fell apart, rested on an event that lasted less than 30 seconds.

Picture yourself atop the most charming mountains in Europe, some 4,700 miles from your hilly childhood playground, with a full moon standing guard over a cool night, your parents and sister waving and screaming in the melting pot of lunatics 736 feet below, and nothing but a boatload of trouble in between.

Close your eyes and count to 30.

Pretend you're Jillian Vogtli.

She didn't face just a difficult moguls course when she took the starting line Saturday in the Winter Olympics. It was an encounter with her life, everything she had worked for since she began navigating the bumps at Holiday Valley Ski Resort just around the corner from her home in Ellicottville.

It was about making amends with her career, enjoying what's expected to be her final Olympics and sharing a special moment with her family. It was everything that defines a competitor, but from Day One it was always about this: getting to the bottom.

The better she skis to the bottom, the closer she gets to the top of her sport and the better she feels about herself. So when she was given another op
portunity to fulfill a dream, there was no holding back. She had to swing for the fences, face the brutal truth known as the Cork Seven and still get to the bottom.

This brush with reality was evident last month when she qualified for the U.S. team during an event in Lake Placid. She was the only one practicing the Cork Seven, an advancement in modern aviation. It's unnatural to ski down a steep hill and jump off a ramp in the first place, but doing so diagonally while spinning 720 degrees is an invitation to last place if not the emergency room.

It's why most don't even bother. Vogtli was last among the qualifiers Saturday, which meant she skied first in the finals. She needed to impress judges who typically give low scores early, leaving room for higher scores later. But, really, she needed to do it for herself. She sacrificed too much to leave Italy haunted by regret.

"I had nothing to lose," Vogtli said after finishing in 11th place along the Pin Court Course. "I was just going. It was the perfect evening to go out there and do it. If I was sitting in third place, fifth place or 20th place, I was going to go for it. That's what it's about here. No holds barred."

World-class athletes often don't digest the true meaning of sports until it's too late because they are too consumed with winning. Only recently, after she competed in 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, has Vogtli been able to comprehend that life is much easier when it's driven by the experience and not times and scores.

Ultimately, the result meant nothing compared to the decision to give it her best shot. Last month, she crashed while attempting the trick for the first time in competition. She landed it Saturday, wobbly but upright, and reached the bottom in 27.46 seconds. Jennifer Heil captured the gold for Canada.

Vogtli was fortunate to sneak into the finals after hiccupping in the opening round and qualifying 20th. In 2002, she failed to qualify in the top 16, missed the finals and limped home 18th. The finals were expanded for these Games, allowing her to uncork the Cork Seven.

"She has worked extremely hard on it," American Shannon Bahrke said after finishing 10th. "For her heart and her soul, it was the right thing to do. She really put it out there, and I really admire her for that."

They're still talking about Vogtli's training habits at Holiday Valley. When she was growing up, she would arrive in the morning and return home when she was tired. She's 32, still not tired and still not home.

"I always said she was a cheap date," said her father, Jack. "I would drop her off at the Valley with a dollar. She would spend the whole day skiing, spend a dime on the phone call to pick her up and give me 90 cents back. She just loved it. She was driven."

Home visited her Saturday. Vogtli's Crew -- her parents, Anne and Jack, and her sister, Jamie -- arrived 50 miles outside Turin after a 25-hour planes-trains-automobiles odyssey. They spent the day waving a poster of Vogtli wearing her shiny pink helmet and toothy smile.

"My dad hasn't been out of the country since Vietnam. My mom has never been out of the country other than Canada," Vogtli said. "After my first run, I hung my head until I looked over at them and said, 'That's why I'm here.' It's so special. They couldn't have cared less if I was dead last or I had won."

They watched her scraping money together for years in pursuit of her career. Once, when she was a student-teacher from Brockport State, she walked into a bank and asked for a $4,000 loan even though she didn't have a job and had no plans of getting one. When asked why she needed the money, she told the bank officer she was going skiing.

Oh, well in that case, no problem.

It's not to say she wasn't tested. She had reconstructive surgery on her left knee, then her right. She lost her way a few times, struggled with skiing and fought to find balance in her life. Two years ago, her relationship with her former fiance fell apart because she spent so much time on the road.

After failing to reach the finals in 2002, she poured herself into cycling. She made the U.S. team but was not selected for the Olympics. In no time, she was back skiing in Park City and working at the Home Depot, which helps Olympic hopefuls earn a living. Everything pointed toward Saturday.

"I thought it was good for her," Anne Vogtli said. "She needed to get over that hurdle. Now she can check that box and say, 'OK, I did that.' "

Vogtli will soon resume a normal life, fulfilled knowing she gave her best effort at the Olympics. She didn't win, but everything worked out. She appears to have found peace after 32 years and counting. She needed less than 30 seconds.

Imagine that.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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