PARK CITY, Utah - When Eric Bergoust was a kid growing up in Missoula, Mont., it never crossed his mind that his sister's cat, Tattoo, didn't want to learn how to parachute off the chimney of his parents' house.
In fact, he and his brother just figured all Tattoo needed was the opportunity and the equipment. So they gathered up some string, a towel and a pillow, and ... well, it's better to let him tell it.
"We got a plastic grocery bag and punched five holes in it; one for the cat's head and one for each of its legs," says Bergoust, the gold medalist in aerial ski jumping in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. "That was our harness. Then we got a bunch of string and tied it to a towel for our parachute.
"We went up on the chimney and tossed it in the air and it was like time froze as it was falling," he says. "We had this little head pillow for it to land on in case it didn't work, but like five feet from the ground, there was a big 'poof' and the parachute opened. It set the cat down just perfectly. We've got some great pictures of it."
That was just the beginning. Not long after Tattoo's miraculous voyage, Bergoust was pulling all the family mattresses into his yard so that he could do gainers off the chimney. There are pictures of that, too.
"In the Bergoust family, our motto is, if you didn't get a picture of it, it didn't happen," he says.
All of it, of course, was just part of what went into making Bergoust the premier aerial jumper in the world. His parents, Don and Carol, tried to be strict, but they could only shrug their shoulders in the face of his thirst for adventure.
A penchant for thrill-seeking led him to try sky diving, hang gliding and juggling fire. Bergoust jumped off bridges and 60-foot cliffs all along the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers in the Missoula Valley.
But it was aerial skiing - which requires hurling one's self down a mountain at 45 mph before flying 50 feet into the air to perform multiple flips and twists - that stuck. After watching it on television back in 1988, he was hooked. He spent the next several years sneaking around Lost Trail Pass ski resort, building jumps out of bounds and honing his skill. He eventually became a World Cup veteran, and is the favorite to win the gold medal again Feb. 19.
"I wanted to be a stunt man when I grew up," he says. "I liked to do things that scared me, like jumping off bridges, but at the same time they were things I knew were safe."
Though his antics have long been legend inside ski circles, the world was just finding out who Bergoust was in 1998. ("He's always been a wild man," said aerial teammate Tracy Evans. "You never know what's going to come out of his mouth.") In Nagano, aerials was in only its second go-round as an Olympic sport, and it was often mentioned in the same breath with the X Games, an association Bergoust scoffs at.
"If the X Games was going on and I had nothing else to do, I still wouldn't go to the X Games," Bergoust says.
But when he nailed his second jump in the aerial competition, setting a world record and winning gold, everything changed. He did Letterman, went to the Grammys, rocked with Run DMC and drank coffee with Regis and Kathie Lee. He ended up on boxes of Kellogg's Raisin Bran, which earned him all the free cereal and Pop Tarts he could eat.
"It's funny, but I think everything goes in cycles," Bergoust says. "It's cool to be into extreme sports right now. For a long time that wasn't the case. ... When I decided to do this sport, it wasn't even in the Olympics."
Times have changed, too. In the last Olympics, Bergoust's father, Don, was the only family member who could afford to travel to Japan to see him. And to do it, Don Bergoust had to sell some guns and his saddles to finance the trip. This time around, he'll have an army of family piling in the "SuBergan," the blue family suburban, and driving from Montana to cheer him on.
"Growing up in Montana was huge for me," Bergoust said. "Maybe it was the laid-back lifestyle, or the fact that we don't put too much emphasis on making money or being successful. But we work hard. When we used to complain as kids, my dad had a saying. He'd say, 'You gotta be tough to live in the West.' He even has license plates that say: BE TOUGH.
"That's been my slogan my whole life: Be tough. When you don't feel like training, be tough. When you're scared of jumping, be tough. That's the only way I know how to live."