March 2006, Torino, Italy
The big bend at the top of Aqua Minerale is merciless. It’s the mother of all turns on the 50 mph downhill course, a proving ground that gives skiers a nanosecond to get on edge and hold steady. Too much weight on the fore end of the ski and they’re eating snow; too much weight on the aft end and they’re sitting down. Run after run, competitors from every country wipe out, never mind that they’re the best in the world. And here comes Ralph Green, from Edwards, Colorado, by way of Brooklyn, New York—and by way of a .44 caliber bullet. He’s hauling down the course in his red-white-and-blue Team USA skin-suit, going for the gold on his right leg—his only leg.
Two of Ralph’s uncles, Bruce and Gregory, and his “step dad,” Donnie, are here representin’ on the sidelines of the Paralympics. In the powder-white crowd, they’re the gregarious black men hoisting a banner with the words RALPH GREEN/BED-STUY BROOKLYN. The top of the homemade sign is folded over, at Ralph’s request, to conceal the fact that he’s the first African-American on the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team. After all, he recently took a bronze in the downhill at the U.S. Nationals, making him one of the top disabled skiers in the United States, period. Now Ralph’s one turn away from Aqua Minerale, coming out of a smooth left, outstretching his arms and pointing his ski-tip-equipped poles—his outriggers—down the hill.
Espresso complexion. Five feet, 11 inches tall, a little over 200 pounds, without so much as a nubbin for a left leg. But what a right leg. Jeezus—Ralph’s thigh must be three feet around. Spectators, non-Americans in particular, can’t get enough of Ralph. Koreans and Australians yell his name from the sidelines. Japanese nod and smile and snap pictures. “Ah, Ralph Green!” they shout. “American skier!”
Ralph hears only the voice in his head. You know this course. Look where you want your ski to go. He tries to shift himself over, over, over to the right, but the combination of speed and gravity won’t let him. Ralph slams down on the snow and slides toward the netting, a fast-moving spot in a cloud of swirling white dust.