VAL GARDENA, Italy— There was a serious crash this weekend at the World Cup of downhill ski racing. But as it turned out, it could have been much worse, if not for some brand new safety equipment sewn into a layer of clothing.
Austrian Olympic champ Matthias Mayer came racing down the Italian mountain flipped, flew and finally crashed–hard. The crowd held its collective breath as the skier struggled to get his.
And he did — in part, because he was wearing a radical new vest with airbags. It’s the first time they’ve ever deployed in a World Cup race.
“It’s not as big as the airbag in your car,” explained Canadian Olympic medalist Jan Hudec.
Hudec helped test the new wearable airbag.
“It’s a little bit bulkier than what we’re use to wearing, but that being said, it’s easy to maneuver in it,” he said.
When a skier abruptly changes position, sensors in the vest distinguish between an intentional jump, an off-balance close call, or an imminent fall.
The International Ski Federation recorded 726 injuries over the last eight seasons of Alpine competition. Nearly 20 percent of those involved the head, neck and shoulders.
It only recently approved the airbag vest by Italian-maker Dainese, but professional skiers aren’t convinced, worried more about speed than safety.
“It’s tough to implement a new thing, even if it’s for safety, in a sport where hundreds of seconds are on the line,” Hudec said.
Jan and his Canadian teammates — as well as a few Austrians — are early adopters.
So are athletes in other sports such as motorcycle racers and horse riders. NorthFace also makes them for snowboarders in case of avalanche.
Mayer’s fall landed him in a helicopter, then in the hospital — and surely grateful for an airbag that, ski officials are certain, saved him from more serious injury.
The Austrian ski team says Mayer broke a vertebra, and will be out of competition for a month. So far, the ski federations refused to make the new safety vests mandatory, but Mayer’s fall may turn skeptics into believers.