The Sawtooth Mountains that surround charming old Sun Valley look like huge chocolate muffins with gobs of white icing oozing down the sides, but there was no sweetness on them last week. There was, instead, the grim and bitter American International Team races, the last big Alpine ski meet of the winter, and you had to wonder for a while if the French and Austrians would not have preferred to settle the affair with a few karate whacks. The powerful French finally settled it by skiing the best, just as they had done at Stowe (SI, March 28), while the Austrians boasted and complained, just as they usually do when they lose. And in the midst of it all, the crippled U.S., searching for mere glimmers of hope, discovered a couple of its brightest prospects in many a snowfall.
Ski races most often are friendly events with a lot of fancy stretch clothes around, the necessary dozens of beautiful people, thermoses full of spiked coffee, picnics under way along parts of the courses and heaps of international goodwill at the finish gate. Sun Valley had most of this, but it primarily had a furious competition for the Werner Cup between the French and Austrians, for that trophy would be recognized as official proof of team supremacy until the world championships at Portillo, Chile, next August. Thus, on the last day, when France had to come from behind to win, the slopes of Baldy Mountain came alive with as much drama as you would find in the fourth quarter of a close football game.
Led by its top racers, Jean-Claude Killy and Marielle Goitschel, the French carved out a lead in the slalom on Thursday. But the Austrians' mighty downhill strength overwhelmed everyone on Friday, as Heini Messner, Karl Schranz and Egon Zimmermann bumped down the 2.1-mile course and finished one, two, three. At this point all the spectators around the finish who had been amused by the loud boasting of Schranz for two days might have been tempted to take him more seriously.
"I am the greatest skier in the world," Schranz had been saying to anyone within earshot. "It is not Killy—it is me." He said it so often and so threateningly, both on the slopes and in the hotel lobby, that he earned himself the underground nickname of Cassius Muhammad Schranz.
The Austrians were very unhappy with everything. They didn't like their hotel rooms at Stowe or Sun Valley, rooms that were better than most of the Tennessee Williams-type accommodations that ski racers usually put up with in the Alps. They were tired, they said, not at their best, because they had been racing so much. The French had raced as much, but there were no Austrian comments on that.
"You are stupid, stupid, stupid!" was the way Schranz put it to one astounded journalist in the lobby of the Challenger Inn before about 20 spectators. The man fought back by folding his arms and giggling.
"I am the great ski racer for 10 years," Schranz bellowed. "I may never come back here. I am not liked."
He was pretty close to correct, of course, on both counts. Few men, if any, have won more than Karl over so many years, and he was magnificent at Sun Valley—the best combined skier. He was second in the slalom on Thursday, second in the downhill on Friday, and when he captured the giant slalom on Saturday morning, upsetting Killy by .28 second, it looked as if Schranz singlehandedly had skied Austria into a team lead that could not be erased. But as Schranz boasted, the French girls were preparing for their event. And up the hill climbed the French men—Killy, Léo Lacroix, Guy Périllat, Georges Maudit and Jules Melquiond—to station themselves at the tough turns so they could shout encouragement and warnings to their girls. If Marielle Goitschel could win and if Annie Famose could place at least third, and if Florence Steurer and Isabelle Mir—two 16-year-olds—could also land in the top 10, France would beat Austria for the Cup.
"Allez, France!" they hollered as Marielle tore down the course.
"Allez, Marielle, mon trésor!" roared Lacroix.
"Porte difficile!" shouted Killy.
Marielle Goitschel got her first place by 1.16 seconds with a slamming clutch run. Annie Famose got third. Isabelle Mir took eighth and Florence Steurer, ninth. And, suddenly, the French burst into a wild celebration. Marielle tumbled down the hill to hug and kiss Annie. Annie hugged and kissed Isabelle. Isabelle hugged and kissed Florence, and down came the men. Girls kissed boys. Boys kissed boys. Girls kissed coaches. Coaches kissed journalists. Out came a banner on two poles that said, "Allez, France," and they all went skiing under it, all of them yelling, "Formidable!"
The celebration got a little too wild later on. The French sped into Ketchum, bought up a bunch of water pistols and headed back to the Boiler Room in the basement of the Lodge, Sun Valley's most notable discotheque. The girls playfully squirted water on everyone, including the waitresses, and one waitress promptly dumped a pitcher of beer on Marielle. A small riot ensued. Marielle lit into the waitress as if she were an Austrian. It took two strong men to separate them—Cassius Schranz might have done it alone—and the whole unfortunate scene ended before anyone had to leap on a chair and start singing La Marseillaise. The opinion of the judges, by the way, was that Marielle Goitschel had won again. Standing enviously by to watch all the French celebrating were the second-place Austrians, the third-place Swiss, the fourth-place Canadians and the Americans, who had skied without the injured Billy Kidd and, therefore, were never in contention.
Coach Bob Beattie had some things to smile about, nevertheless. Jimmy Heuga proved to be the third-best combined racer in the meet, just as he was at Stowe, and also the third-best point-scorer behind Schranz and Killy. Little Wendy Allen won the Sun Valley Challenge Cup on Sunday, beating all the top European girls in the giant slalom. Mainly, though, Beattie was pleased to find that his emphasis on the downhill—"the bossevent," he calls it, "where the men are"—was beginning to pay off. Right there in the finish of the downhill on Friday, with all those great names like Messner, Schranz and Zimmermann, were a stock-car racer and a quarterback, respectively, Jim (Moose) Barrows and Jere Elliott.
All along Beattie has been saying that Barrows, 21, and Elliott, 19, were "real athletes who had a chance to do something." They had the kind of credentials he liked—both are from Steamboat Springs, Colo., the late Bud Werner's home, both are good at other sports, both are bigger and stronger than racers like Heuga and Kidd and both are more enthusiastic about downhills than slaloms. "Slalom is the passing game, and downhill is the ground game," Beattie has said often. He had finally convinced Billy Kidd, and Kidd, in fact, won a third in the Hahnenkamm downhill at Kitzb√ºhel, the best American downhill finish in seven years in that kind of company. Heuga also has improved, as evidenced by his fifth at Stowe and ninth at Sun Valley.
But Barrows and Elliott were even more impressive at Sun Valley because they were total surprises. Barrows, a glib, grinning, good-natured young man, blasted out of the pack to place fourth; Elliott, competing as an individual and not as a member of the U.S. team, flashed into a tie for sixth. Moose Barrows has been a four-event skier at the University of Colorado—slalom, downhill, cross-country and jumping—until this year when Beattie directed Jim's efforts more explicitly to downhill. He has also been a stock-car racer and cracked up his own self-made auto. "It's a good sport," he says, "but I think skydiving might be better than anything. I'm going to try it this summer, if I can get me a parachute."
"After the FIS," says Beattie.
Jere Elliott was first team quarterback at Steamboat Springs High for three seasons. He was a left-handed passer who could also run, but he never got quite big enough to try football in college. A sophomore at Colorado, he may never again get any closer to a football than Barrows will to a parachute. Their souls belong to Beattie now, for their performances in Sun Valley put them on the FIS squad. If Billy Kidd's ankle heals and allows him to return to his early winter form, the U.S. team at Chile should be its best ever.
"We're finally getting athletes in this sport," says Beattie. "And that's the whole problem. In Austria, the Jim Browns and Paul Hornungs are on skis. The Austrians should be flattered that everyone wants to beat them so badly."