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Usually, you see André Höflich, a 24-year-old Olympic halfpipe snowboarder from Germany, in a sea of snow as he tears daringly down a mountain. But in a recent video interview for The Times, he sits in a dark room and speaks directly to the camera: “If we didn’t have fear,” he says, “we would all be dead by now.”
Beginning in October, Times journalists and editors traveled to training camps, trial races and rehab facilities in Switzerland, Colorado, New York and Utah to meet with three dozen athletes, most of whom qualified for the Winter Olympics in Beijing. They wanted to ask how fear — fear of injury, fear of failure, fear of being unable to continue a sport they love — affects an athlete’s life.
At a time when candid conversation about the mental health of athletes is more prevalent, The Times hoped to uncover how Olympians faced, or whether they even experienced, fear. The journalists did not expect, however, that every athlete they spoke with — including the ones who ski downhill at 90 miles per hour or flip multiple times in the air — would admit to feeling it.
“They were so forthcoming and so honest,” said Joe Ward, a Times Graphics editor and a producer on the project, who has covered many Olympics. “I feel like we hit on something that they’ve actually wanted to talk about.”
That honesty takes center stage in The Times’s five-part series, which begins with “What Scares the World’s Most Daring Olympians,” which was published online on Tuesday. Through intimate interviews, action shots and written reportage, the package examines the paradox of fear at such a competitive level.
The project took about four months, but the idea came to Mr. Ward nearly 15 years ago during the 2008 Summer Games, when a 10-meter diver confessed during an interview that he regularly felt scared on the platform. This surprised Mr. Ward, who had assumed the divers were “immune” to fear. “I found it really interesting,” he said, “and kept that in the back of my head for just the right moment.” He began thinking about the concept again during the Tokyo Olympics and decided to pursue it for the 2022 Winter Games.
The project reveals that fear can incite both hesitation and adrenaline — as Michael Dammert, the German freestyle snowboard coach, said in one of the video interviews, “It’s your best friend and your biggest enemy.” The package shows situations through athletes’ perspectives. One installment features a visualization of what Millie Knight, a British Paralympic skier who is nearly blind, sees through her goggles as she races down a mountain.
Another element shows how even poor weather can frighten. Many of the events “are performed outdoors, relying on snow and ice, and one gust of wind can close the runway,” said Haeyoun Park, The Times’s deputy editor for Graphics. Video footage from an aerial skier’s helmet shows how dizzying it can be to spin through the air when the sky and ground are nearly the same color.
John Branch, a Times reporter on the Sports desk who conducted the interviews and wrote the text for the project, began every conversation by asking athletes if fear played a role in their professional lives. “I thought some of them would try to say no,” Mr. Branch said. “But every single one of them said yes, and ‘what I do scares me.’”
Each athlete was interviewed individually. Emily Rhyne, a cinematographer and editor at The Times, used a system of mirrors called EyeDirect, which allowed the subjects to look directly into the camera while still facing Mr. Branch. “That kind of intimacy informed the rest of the project,” Ms. Rhyne said.
Ms. Rhyne and a team of videographers also recorded the athletes atop glaciers performing their biggest trick or in training camps practicing a move, and captured quieter moments, like when an athlete reassessed a ski or snowboard run.
Mr. Branch learned that, often, the fear of the physical injury is the least of athletes’ worries.
“Every single one of them is scared of getting hurt, but not one of them is scared of pain,” Mr. Branch said. “They’re scared of injury because of what it means beyond that,” like missing the Olympics or being unable to continue their passion.
Although Olympians may appear unflinching on a screen as they soar to incredible heights or drop into a halfpipe, the project revealed a common thread between competitors and readers.
“These athletes are as human as you and me,” Mr. Branch said. “They are normal people who have found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. It doesn’t mean that they’re not afraid.”