What's the first clue that aerialist Eric Bergoust has never
cracked open the handbook on world-class-athlete behavior and
attitude? Is it the fact that he is so considerate of media
types who want to interview him that he e-mails directions to
his Park City house--a modest three-bedroom he owns but insists
he doesn't deserve--and even suggests reasonably priced hotels
nearby? Is it that he finds athletic inspiration in the Leaning
Tower of Pisa? Is it that, at 32, he is the most accomplished
skier in his sport yet keeps pushing himself to get better? Or
is it that he is willing to fail, to look stupid, to think
outside the box--out loud?
"There's a reason we call him Weird Eric," says fellow U.S.
aerialist Britt Swartley. "Once he tried to convince me that he
could draw sound. That was an interesting afternoon."
Any time spent with Bergoust (who competes today at Deer Valley)
has the potential to be, well, singular. If he isn't on the Utah
Olympic Park ramps working on the acrobatics that have earned him
an Olympic gold, a world championship and a World Cup points
title as well as the three highest aerials scores ever recorded,
he's probably thinking about being there. "The only reason I do
anything else is because I know it's not healthy to be obsessed
by one thing," he says.
"Eric works 10 times harder than anyone else in this sport, and
he is 20 times more passionate about it," says U.S. aerials team
coach Matt Christensen. "He lives for aerials."
The base for that life is a handsome wooden structure in a
subdivision five minutes from Utah Olympic Park. This is where
Bergoust does much of his thinking about his sport and where he
finds the few distractions he'll allow himself. On an October
morning when the wind is too fierce for practice, Bergoust offers
you a tour. He parks his 1989 Toyota Corolla in the driveway and
takes his shoes off at the entry, and so do you. He shows you the
pristine kitchen, the living room and the mantel, where he keeps
a number of trophies. He takes you into the garage, where he
keeps a stash of skis and strips of Teflon that he has cut into
various shapes to glue onto the bottom of the skis in a quest for
greater speed down the water jump on which he practices in the
off-season. Upstairs in the house you meet his girlfriend, Sally
Jo Beck, a yoga instructor who is writing at a computer. He shows
you his drum machine and his technical drawings for improved
ramps. No, he gives you his drawings, to keep. He asks if there
is anything else you'd like to see. (Later you both will regret
that he forgot to show you the black fake-fur pants he made for
himself.) Before you depart, he notes your pathetic lack of
cold-weather gear and offers to lend you the warmest coat in his
closet. You accept.
"My sister always told me to be nice, and my dad always told me
to be tough," says Bergoust. "That's all I've really ever wanted
to be. Being nice means more than just that--it's being humble,
hopeful, faithful and content. Being tough means no whining, no
complaining. Somehow those concepts have always given me
confidence and made me want to improve."
Bergoust grew up in Missoula, Mont., with three older and two
younger siblings and strict Christian parents. The kids were
forbidden to listen to rock music, but all of them learned to
juggle and sew. (In fourth grade Eric won a second-place ribbon
at the Missoula County Fair for a quilt he made, and he is still
facile enough with a needle and thread that Beck trusts him to
repair her silkiest garments.) Even against that backdrop
Bergoust stood apart as a child. Before Eric's first day of
school his father, Don, tried to reassure him that kindergarten
would be a pretty good gig: He'd meet new friends, get to color,
play, eat cookies and take naps. "Eric was not impressed,"
recalls Don. "He said, 'Yuck! I want to learn how to read!'
That's when I knew he was a little different."
School never did live up to Bergoust's expectations, especially
after sixth grade, when his parents enrolled him in a small,
private Christian school with a curriculum that included Bible
classes but not French, which he wanted to learn because he liked
the way it sounded. "I hated that they made you memorize things,"
he says. "I would much rather learn from people's mistakes than
memorize what years all the presidents served."
He found challenges elsewhere. An avid Evel Knievel fan, Bergoust
practiced stunts like jumping off the roof of the house and then
landing and rolling like a sky diver, or flinging himself off the
top of the chimney into a pile of mattresses. He did his first
backflip on a neighborhood trampoline when he was about seven and
soon after joined a gymnastics team for two years. When he was 15
and had been skiing for about three years, he saw a kid do a flip
off a homemade jump and asked for a lesson. After landing on his
head a few times, Bergoust planted himself on his feet and never
looked back. "I could never get enough of that feeling of
flipping through the air," he says.
He began making his own jumps and driving nearly nine hours to
compete in upright aerials (in which flips are not allowed)
events. In 1988, the year after he graduated from high school,
Bergoust drove 500 miles to the Olympics in Calgary, where
aerials were a demonstration sport. Determined to be the first
one inside the gates for the finals, Bergoust slept in a nearby
field the night before. After the event, he says, "I ate part of
Five months later he bought a used 1985 Toyota Celica with $500
he had saved by doing odd jobs and drove cross-country to a
summer training camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. With the $10 he had
left, he bought cornflakes, powdered milk, peanut butter, jelly
and a loaf of bread and lived off that for the first week. He
worked like a fiend, setting a record for most jumps in a day
(100) and toiling at three or four jobs when the ramps were
closed. His efforts earned him a spot on the NorAm team, but
while most of his teammates could afford to fly to competitions
scattered across the continent, Bergoust and fellow aerialist
Chris McQuery had to drive, dining on cold cuts they scavenged
from event banquets. "At that time a lot of the people in aerials
were upper-class kids with lots of money," says Canadian aerials
coach Nick Bass, who got to know Bergoust in the summer of '88,
before becoming his coach five years later. "It was easy for
them. It wasn't easy for Eric."
That first season Bergoust mastered double flips. The second
summer he progressed to triples on the water jump but couldn't
pull them off on snow. "The next four or five years I spent
crashing triples instead of going back to doubles," he says.
Then, during a vacation in Hawaii in April 1993, Bass popped in a
tape of a new technique that he had learned from a trampoline
coach, the tilt-twist, in which the aerialist uses momentum from
the flip, rather than from the jump, to twist his body slightly
to one side. Bergoust decided to try the new maneuver, which
would get his body twisting and flipping in a more efficient and
controlled manner. "We figured it would take me a year and a half
to break old habits and another year and a half to instill new
ones," says Bergoust, who was further hobbled by a still-healing
right ACL, which he had torn in '92.
Meanwhile Bass, Bergoust and Swartley, another tilt-twist
advocate, were mocked within the aerials community for their
radical ideas and the TILT T-shirts they wore, including one that
bore a drawing of the Leaning Tower of Pisa with the word
REVOLUTION underneath. The tilt-twisters' cause wasn't helped by
the fact that they rarely got near a podium during the 1994 and
'95 seasons. Then Bergoust won U.S. championships in '96 and '97
using the technique and the world title in '97. And after
severely bruising his ribs in practice a half hour before the
1998 Olympic finals, he landed "the best jumps of my life"--triple
backflips with four twists--to seal the gold medal in Nagano. "Now
anyone who is any good does tilt-twist," says Christensen.
Bergoust's impact on the sport goes beyond technique. Shortly
after the '98 Games he wrote a letter to his national teammates
and coaches explaining his theory on how jumps should be shaped.
Now his higher, steeper triple-kicker design has become the
standard for aerial launching pads.
"Eric's approach with everything is, Let's analyze this and see
if there is a better way," says Bass. "With everything new he has
tried, the first reaction from most people has been, That's the
dumbest thing I ever heard--he's crazy. My first thought is, Hey,
let's try it! Anything Eric has to say, I want to hear."
So does 23-year-old aerialist Steve Omischl of Canada, who ranks
13th in the World Cup standings. "Eric not only brought a better
technique to the sport of aerials, he also brought in a whole new
mentality about training," says Omischl. "He's the reason people
get so good so fast now. Ten years ago the best guys in the world
were only spending one month on the water. Now they work a lot
harder because of Eric's example."
Remarkably, Bergoust hasn't stopped working, even at an age at
which most aerialists have been retired for years. He says one
key to his longevity is his total disregard for what others think
of him. "I know as a gold medalist that everyone's watching me,"
he says. "If I mess up a jump, they're going to wonder what's
wrong. It's what makes those at the top afraid to do anything but
what people tell them they are really good at. But the best way
to improve is to work on your weaknesses and be willing to look
stupid. I'm willing to try a thousand times and to fail a
His persistence has brought about some beautiful moments in the
air, more of which we can expect to see today. "We never jump as
well as we think we should," says Bergoust. "That's why we all
keep doing it. It's not that I need to finish on a high note. I
just don't think I'll ever get sick of doing this."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE Forbidden from listening to rock music as a youngster, Bergoust diverted himself with juggling, for which he clearly has a flare.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: NANCIE BATTAGLIA Warm weather is workout weather for Bergoust, a tireless trainer who uses the water ramps at Utah Olympic Park to launch himself into space on summer and fall days.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE A student of the science as well as the sport, Bergoust works the angles in his room before he takes to the air in competition.
Bergoust slept in a field the night before the Calgary aerials.
After the event he ate part of the jump.
"Eric's approach with everything is, Let's analyze this and see
if there is a better way," says Bass.