Ski racing seasons usually sink slowly in the West, but last week out in Wyoming the whole thing ended in a high-forenoon showdown that may have been the wildest thing since cowboys and Indians. It sent everybody into summer with a sudden premonition that 1968—the Olympic year—is not necessarily the exclusive property of the French.
All this happened at an affair called the Wild West Classic at Jackson Hole, Wyo., a kind of rodeo on skis staged high on the side of a craggy 10,445-foot mountain. And although Jean-Claude Killy reestablished the fact that he is the world's greatest skier, it required the last event of the meet—and of the season—to decide which of three strong girls would win the World Cup, stretch-pants division.
In the end it was Nancy Greene—who has blue eyes, a Twiggy haircut and the instincts of a Canadian Mountie (her teammates call her "Tiger")—who won the cup by beating out two more favorably placed opponents.
Nancy started in what seemed an impossible position, ranked behind Marielle Goitschel and Annie Famose, the most formidable act in ski racing today. To win she had to beat them both, not to mention everybody else on the mountain and a case of nerves that threatened to send her yipping off into the nearest snowbank instead of down the hill. But a few nerves never really bothered a tiger. She won both heats of the giant slalom and then the slalom, chased so closely by Marielle that they ended up .07 second apart. When it was all over, a 125-pound Canadian was suddenly the best girl skier in the world, and the first break had appeared in the French armor.
The brainchild of Serge Lang, a large, lumpy ski writer for France's sports newspaper L'Equipe—he borrowed the idea from Grand Prix automobile racing—the World Cup has become, in its first year, the symbol of ski supremacy. Lang was as surprised as anyone that his idea caught on, and he went through the season looking alternately bewildered and solemn, keeping scores on ragged little pieces of paper and in a battered black notebook he carried in his parka.
The scoring system is complicated (SI, March 20) and will probably be touched up a little in years to come. Killy, as everyone knows, won the men's cup easily, but the women's race came to Wyoming with all the aspects of a showdown at the O.K. Corral. Marielle Goitschel had a total of 169 points in Lang's black book. Annie Famose had 158 points, and Nancy Greene was still within striking distance with 151. At that point the shooting began.
Jackson Hole, in its second season as a ski area, was up to the occasion. Racing officials gave the team members from nine nations $3.50 white cowboy hats, and within an hour had taught everybody to squint and say, "Howdy." They staged a rodeo in the spring mud and provided real live western horses for the racers to ride between events.
Jackson Hole is located in a 48-mile-long, six-mile-wide valley in the Teton Range, where jagged peaks are reminiscent of the Alps. Area Operators Paul McCollister and Alex Morley have put in 24 trails around the 13 bowls and eight ridges. A cable car runs to the peak of a mountain so big that during Friday's races it was snowing at the top, clouds were wrapped around the middle and the bottom was washed in bright sunshine. Killy called it the best ski mountain he has seen in America.
Snaking off the top is a 3,275-foot vertical-drop run that could be the trickiest, fastest downhill in the U.S. But race officials decided not to hold a downhill, because changeable spring snow conditions made the course too risky, what with the Olympics coming up next year. Two days of giant slalom were scheduled instead, with the climactic slalom set for Sunday.
Killy put aside his cowboy hat—the one given him was black, an implication that unhappily escaped the French—and went right to work. On Friday's first section of the giant slalom he careened down through the trees into a comfortable first spot, ahead of Austria's Werner Bleiner and America's Jimmy Heuga. In the Saturday section, with a time edge, he ran the course easily, legs together in a fashionable but un-Killylike stance. He placed third behind teammate Georges Mauduit and Austria's Karl Schranz—neither of whom had even finished the first race. In the combined giant slalom standings Heuga was just behind Killy—for the fourth time in three weeks. Jimmy had not looked so good since the 1964 Olympics. Had Jean-Claude lost his first race in America? Not exactly. His combined time for the two runs was the thing he had aimed for. Then, finally, the weary star of the show did lose on Sunday, when he hooked a ski in a slalom gate and fell. Austria's Herbert Huber won the men's slalom.
But it was the women's race that was getting the attention. Back to that black book for a moment. Nancy Greene had already collected her maximum 75 World Cup points for giant slalom and faced a challenge of a different order. She had to win to keep Marielle and Annie out of first place, thus setting them up for the kill in the slalom, in which she had only 40 points and could therefore increase her total by 25. Marielle and Annie each had 70 slalom points and could add only five to their totals.
Two of the brightest dashes of the season brought Nancy her giant slalom victories. Surging down the course, she ticked the gates with the heels of her skis, and at one point changed her mind in mid-air. Coming off a high bump overlooking the 11 western states, she took a gate reverse style. "I saw it coming up and I was too high," she said, "and I quickly thought about it and figured what the hell and went through it backward." And was she excited about the prospect of winning the World Cup? "The cup is sort of a bonus," she said. "The race is what counts."
By Sunday morning Nancy wasn't the only one in Jackson Hole aware of tension. Marielle had collected three additional points for her fourth place in the giant slalom combined. Austria's Erika Schinegger had taken second and Annie Famose was back in fifth spot. Easter dawned cold and snowy, and the slalom course had turned overnight into a burlesque runway made of solid ice. The women huddled at the top in parkas and warm-up pants, quickly stripped down to slalom gear and raced as though they were freezing. America's Rosie Fortna made it through four gates and spilled icily. Penny McCoy, starting 12th, made it a little farther.
Then Nancy, in the 13th spot, showed what exercise will do for a girl. Before breakfast she had done 50 sit-ups, 50 deep knee bends and 15 push-ups. She came off the mountain in the season's best form, her skis making slashing sounds across the ice that could be heard all over the valley.
"This is the spot I want," she said at the bottom, coolly surveying the hill. At the end of the first run Florence Steurer of France was first, Nancy second and Marielle third.
"I never get nervous between runs," Nancy confided, calmly biting her fingernails to the quick, pulling off her plastic boots and wriggling her toes. "You see, now that I know what the ice is like, I can run a little faster next time."
She did just that, rasping down in the mist and slashing to a stop. "This is the roughest part," she said, "waiting for the results." Then Marielle came down, looking huge and fast, and they looked at each other with tentative smiles. It was all over. Nancy had won everything available at the meet and had beaten Marielle for the World Cup, 176 points to 172. Annie Famose had 158.
They embraced and Marielle soberly kissed Nancy, then wheeled and skied away, straight through the gates and down to the lodge.
The Wild West World Cup silver-spurs cowboy-hat classic was a fitting end to a hectic ski year. Anyone handicapping next year's Olympics would still have to pick Killy and his skiing circus as favorites—but hardly such insurmountable ones as before.
"We are trying to copy the French now, because the French are winning," said Nancy. "And at last we are on to them. The Americans and the Canadians have been overanalyzing. They train in stages. They get overtense, and they are all psyched by the French. But no more. We are going to become bashers—we need more bashers like the French."
Heuga agreed, wearing the confident look of the new Heuga. "From now on," he said, "I'm going to be as relaxed as Killy and the rest of the Frenchmen. Boy, when I think of running 10 miles a day in training and then racing on the same day! And you know where Killy is? He is already in condition and he is in bed sleeping while we are all overtraining. That's where he is."
Nancy cried a little and laughed a little simultaneously and assumed her new role as a world-beater. That little psyched racer named Nancy had turned into a pretty big Tiger.