PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Peanut butter congealed on the floor. The refrigerator door hung open. Food littered the place. And a steaming pile of, well, the substance that typically reveals itself in a pile and steams caked the carpet. Bryce Bennett, an alpine skier by trade, surveyed the scene in his parents’ home and fashioned himself an ursine gumshoe – Ace Ventura for the 2010s.
“The Lake Tahoe bear problem is real,” Bennett said. “People are like cockroaches and rats are bad in New York, but you should come to Tahoe. We have 400-pound bears breaking in. … It looked like he sat on the couch and turned on the TV. He was Netflix and chilling.”
A week later, after what was supposed to be a quick pit stop at the house to shower and change, Bennett returned to his car to find its doors open, papers strewn about and the center console raided. He figured he was robbed until he realized the protein powder and dog food were missing. Then he saw the culprit, a sneaky black bear. And he did what no sane person would.
“You chase after it and yell at it,” he said. “They’re scared of you. You’ve got to tell ’em this is not OK. I’m not a bear whisperer. I’m not the Cesar Millan of bears. But when they’re breaking into your house, you’ve got to stick up for your life.”
Now, perhaps it’s easier for the 25-year-old Bennett to confront a bear than most. He stands 6-foot-7. His arms hulk and his legs intimidate. And while a bear might stare down a leviathan of Bennett’s size, none in its right mind would dare confront someone with such a combination of size and facial hair.
Bennett grew out his mustache as part of No-Shave November. He vowed not to shave it until he made the United States Olympic team. Once he did that, he figured it best not to ruin a good thing. With the men’s downhill event Sunday morning kicking off two weeks’ worth of alpine skiing, Bennett will put to the test not just the scruff on his face but the idea that a man of remarkable size can win in a sport dominated by those of slightly-above-average size.
The World Cup record holder, Ingemar Stenmark, was a shade under 6-foot. The best racer in the world, Marcel Hirscher, is 5-foot-8. Hermann Maier stands 5-foot-11, Alberto Tomba 6-foot. The best male American skier ever, Bode Miller, is 6-foot-2. Only Ramon Zenhausern, a Swiss slalom skier, is in Bennett’s stratosphere. Both are listed at 6-7, with Zenhausern at 200 centimeters to Bennett’s 198. “He thinks he’s taller,” Bennett said. “I think I’m taller.”
Stick-and-ball sports never appealed to Bennett, not with mountains surrounding him in Alpine Meadows, California. His dad, Stan, was a telemark skier, and his mom, Mary, worked at a nearby resort. Bennett joined the Squaw Valley team that produced Julia Mancuso, the most decorated ski racer in American Olympic history. He vacillated between hucking himself off cliffs and travelling the country to race competitive BMX against the likes of Olympic gold medalist Connor Fields and Olympian Corben Sharrah.
All the while, Bennett was fighting a losing battle with his impetuousness. He was booted from middle school, kicked out of races, disqualified. “I was loose. I was burning bridges left and right and being rude to people,” he said. “But at some point it caught up with me, and I was able to realize that and recognize it and address it. It was one of the greatest things that has happened to me – making mistakes so bad that I needed to learn from them and grow.”
Come his 20s, Bennett started to understand the gifts of his physical skills and translate them. He dedicated himself to training. He embraced weightlifting. He studied technique. He nerded out on equipment. Because companies don’t make molds for his size-15 feet, Bennett stuffs them into size-12 boots that he and his manufacturer stretch out by heating up the plastic and grinding it with a rotary tool.
Bennett’s improvement has been palpable, and the course at Jeongseon Alpine Centre has proven particularly well-suited for him. His size can be a disadvantage on courses with longer, sharper turns; this Olympic downhill course allows him to weather the bumpier terrain at the top of the run by staying closer to the ground, and seventh- and sixth-place finishes in the first two training runs validated his spot on the downhill team. With Miller’s retirement, Bennett has grown into, at very least, the present of American ski racing, if not the future.
“He’s happy to call guys out when they’re being selfish or being a douche,” U.S. ski team downhill coach Johno McBride said. “And when you’re with a bunch of guys, that can happen often.”
Bennett is far more appreciative of his spot today, eager to thank his parents for going into debt to support his career, to praise the coaches who refused to let him waste his talent, to soak in an experience he wasn’t certain he’d enjoy. The Olympics were so corporate, so glitzy. Then he walked into the stadium during Opening Ceremonies and couldn’t stop trading pins with people from other countries. He even gave teammate Resi Stiegler a hug as a distraction so she didn’t notice him reaching into her jacket pocket and stealing pins because he had run out.
Now comes the fun part – the downhill race in which he’ll reach 80-plus miles per hour and then the alpine combined later in the PyeongChang Games. “Bryce isn’t coming in as a medal favorite,” McBride said, “but he’s been progressing all season, and he’s had some really good training runs. Anything’s possible at the Olympics.”
All Bennett needs is to bear down. And as some of his pesky friends in Tahoe will attest, that he can do.
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