Xavier Bertoni, 25, will be one of four men representing France in the first Olympic ski halfpipe competition on Tuesday. You are forgiven if you have not heard of him, or if you wondered what ever happened to him. Since winning the X Games gold medal in 2009, Bertoni plummeted from his status as the world's best halfpipe skier to a forgotten case study in mental paralysis.
Owing to that fall, Bertoni arrived last week in Russia as an Olympic long shot. He is happy about that. "I just have to ski," he said shortly before leaving France. "I have no pressure, no stress. Which is a good way to have good skiing."
He may not make it onto the podium, but his Olympic qualification represents a victory in a long and lonely battle against the most overlooked element in action sports: fear.
The sport of freeskiing, like other action and Olympic sports, is driven by innovation and creativity. In the parlance, it is called progression, a high-stakes athletic microcosm of human evolution. What is cutting edge one year is dated the next. If you don't keep up, you don't win. But every mind-boggling move we see at the Olympics or X Games comes at a cost. Sometimes that cost can be measured in bruises or blood. Other times, it is invisible, trapped in the mind.
Bertoni holds a unique distinction in halfpipe history: He was the sport's final king before double corks entered the equation.
The year after he won the X Games with a cork 1260 as his hardest trick, his fellow Frenchman and close friend, Kevin Rolland, landed three double corks to supplant him. Bertoni earned two medals that winter of 2010 -- bronze in Aspen and silver in Tignes -- but they would be his last significant achievements until he qualified for Sochi.
In 2011, when Rolland defended his title in Aspen, Bertoni tried to keep up. He learned the double cork 1260 in both his natural and unnatural spinning directions, one of the first skiers in the world to do so. But after honing the move on water ramps and an airbag and landing it once during practice in Aspen, his attempt during the competition ended with a vicious wipeout. "That's where the way down started for him," Rolland said.
Bertoni tried to land double corks periodically after that, but the inverted rotation and sharp, icy pipe took root inside his head like a parasite. Every time he fell, he seemed to hurt something new. One day it would be a jammed finger. The next, a smashed face and bloody nose. He suffered a concussion on a particularly bad crash and started questioning his future.
In January 2012, Bertoni joined a host of other skiers for a training session arranged by a shared sponsor in Park City, Utah. Sarah Burke, a four-time X Games champion, was among the group. When Burke crashed and suffered what would prove to be fatal injuries, Bertoni's already fragile mindset was shattered. Forget the bloody nose and concussion -- he suddenly realized his sport could kill.
"It was not good for me to see what can happen when you fall," Bertoni said of Burke's death. "It was hard for me to go again."
Later that month, he arrived at the X Games hoping to regain a semblance of his 2009 form and expel the demons in his head. Long considered one of the best at spinning both ways in the halfpipe, Bertoni planned to land back-to-back double cork 1260s and earn a medal of redemption. But during practice he crashed hard on the left wall, crippling his psyche even further. He didn't try another double cork for nine months.
Those closest to Bertoni say his downfall was compounded by his introverted personality. "He's a complicated man," said his brother Jon, who lives with Xavier in their hometown of Bonneville, France. "He's not a person who really expresses his feelings."
"He's one of my best friends," Rolland said, "but Xavier didn't talk at all. He really stayed alone in his mind. I know when I see his face if he's scared or if he's happy, but I think he's embarrassed when you talk about [his fear]. If it's not funny or something with good vibes, he doesn't like to talk about it."
Because of that, it was hard for Bertoni's coach, Greg Guenet, to help him escape the mental block. When Bertoni was on top, Guenet said, "he was a young Frenchman with a lot to prove. And his mind was only about winning." Once double corks entered the sport and fear wormed its way inside Bertoni's brain, "he was always skiing with his foot on the brake," Guenet said.
According to Rolland, halfpipe skiing demands more training and preparation than it did prior to 2010, both to contend and also to ski safely. But while the rest of the world's elite embraced that, Bertoni admits he did not spend enough time on trampolines to master the more dangerous maneuvers. "It was my fault," Bertoni said of his downfall.
Instead of committing more time to training, he spent three years building a house for himself and his brother and father in Bonneville, 30 minutes from Tignes. His mother, a Brit who taught English in France, died in 2003 of a heart attack, and Bertoni has made a point to prioritize family above skiing since then. (An older brother, Mathieu, lives in Paris.) "If my father and brother and I believe in him, that's the Olympic medal for him," Jon Bertoni said. "It's enough for him."
Bertoni's Olympic berth represents a change in approach that his fear prevented earlier. One year before Sochi, he built a giant trampoline outside his house to finally master the double cork and overcome his doubt.
The French Ski Federation told him he would have to make a World Cup final in order to earn a spot on the Olympic halfpipe team. He did so in January in Calgary, Alberta, where he finished eighth. It was his best result in three years.
"I feel really happy [about the Olympics] because everybody has been believing in me more than me," Bertoni said. "So I'm happy for them because I'm skiing well again."
"He deserves it," Guenet said. "He did a lot for the sport in France."
If the halfpipe is fast enough at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, Bertoni hopes to land back-to-back double cork 1260s, the same combination that sent his career into a downward spiral three years ago.
"It's in his mind," said Rolland, a medal contender. "That doesn't mean he's going to do it, but maybe it's going to be his last chance to do something great. During a competition like the Olympics, anything can happen."