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Some new babes in the woods

A surprising number of American girls are training valiantly against heavy odds to catch up with dominant Europe in cross-country racing

To look at them, they would seem freshly cut from the pages of Louisa May Alcott. They have cherry checks that need no rouge, complexions of outdoor children, the clear eyes of guileless girls; there is in all of them a delicacy of Little Womanhood. They seem suited to a fragile world of needlepoint and powder puffs. But do not be deceived. For these young ladies belong to the new U.S. women's cross-country ski team. How they look and what they do are far different things; there are several grounds on which they can easily take the measure of an average Green Beret.

For example: Barbara Britch, 18, of Anchorage, Alaska, is fair and lovely, and she can march on skis through the deepest frozen woods for 15 miles before lunch and still giggle over her soup. Martha Rockwell, 24, a willowy one from Putney, Vt., does not swoon after bicycling 70 miles in a morning workout. Trudy Owen, 17, from Wilson, Wyo., snub-nosed and freckled, loves few things more than several vigorous hours of chopping wood. Alison Owen, 16, of Wenatchee, Wash., slim and blonde, lopes 20 miles, then lifts weights before breakfast. And Mary Pendleton, 18, of Lyndonville, Vt., dark and queenly even in a sweat suit, does wind sprints by the hour—up the steepest hillsides she can find. Yes, and there are other ladies like them, equally tuned.

This year some 20 girls are training desperately to make the U.S. team that will compete in the FIS World Nordic Championships in mid-February at Vysoke Tatry, Czechoslovakia. It is a special year, for it is the first in which American women will be fully represented in all those rugged cross-country events—the five-and 10-kilometer races and the 15-kilometer relay. By Nordic world standards, 20 candidates is not enough, but until this year American girls have steadily shunned cross-country skiing with all the determination of women whose minds are firmly made up. And with good reason: there is perhaps no cruder contest known to womankind.

Nordic skiing requires the stamina of a small locomotive, the determination of a decathlon star and all the graceful resilience of a ballet dancer. True grit, indeed. Further, there is little of the dazzle and glamour in the Nordic events that the belles of the Alpine scene enjoy. No fanny-flattering tapered pants to lure looks in the lobbies; no dashing TV announcers; no subservient corps of manufacturers' agents ready to wax one's skis or buckle one's boots. There is not even the theatrical satisfaction enjoyed by those noncompetitive bunnies who can pose on a slope while others whistle. In cross-country skiing there is but a single track, the silent woods and thou.

The Nordic lass must be satisfied with more ethereal joys. She dresses in prim, almost old-fashioned wear—knickerbockers, thick wool socks, low-cut shoes and narrow (1½") wooden skis with their tips drawn up in arching curves like runners on a horse-drawn cutter. The skiing style is immensely graceful, but it demands driving power through the thighs, a shooting kind of manly stride through the snow and a piston-pumping motion of the arms and shoulders to keep the rhythm strong. A skier proceeds in a semicrouch, her head nearly erect, her eyes gazing (quite grimly) down the track. There is no place for swooping Christy or crowd-pleasing pirouettes in this sport. As a day's runs progress, kilometer after kilometer after kilometer falls behind at a brutalizingly quick pace, and there is anguish etched on every face. The girls' features grow drawn and oddly pale; this is the loneliness of long distance and only the strongest people can take it.

"These girls are more serious and not so giggly as the Alpine skiers," says Gloria Chadwick, a kind of housemother for U.S. girl competitors and a former Nordic skier herself. "They need more of a stoic outlook since they get so little attention. And since they have to train by themselves so much, they have to appreciate the special feeling of being alone in a woods." Still, there are certain advantages to cross-country skiing over the dazzle of the downhill. One is that women can compete to a far riper age (it is not unusual in Europe to find lady champions in their 30s) and it is far less dangerous than Alpine skiing—a point worth considering for the married woman and mother. And any glamour they may miss at home is more than made up in Europe, where Nordics are nifty.

A U.S. women's cross-country ski team has been a rather unfinished entity for the past two years and interest has grown slowly. Perhaps this is because most Americans have held a magnificently warped image of such girls being about as feminine as a steel puddler. To straighten out this view, Al Merrill, at that time the head Nordic coach, prodded the U.S. Skiing Association to bring Sweden's premier Nordic skiers, Barbro Martinsson and Toini Gustafsson (two gold medals in the '68 Olympics), to the U.S. in 1967 for a series of cross-country ski clinics. Seeing the dainty ways of these ladies helped stir some interest, for obviously a girl did not need to become a Valkyrie to succeed at the sport. Earlier, after Alison Owen ran one leg of a boys' relay race in a junior national championship, reluctant leaders of the U.S. Ski Association agreed there was probably enough interest to sanction a women's Nordic team.

Things have progressed surprisingly well ever since: last winter three American girls, Barbara Britch, Trudy Owen and Mary Pendleton, entered some races in Sweden and did reasonably well. And now all is set for the initial plunge into international competition via Vysoke Tatry. At the moment there is only a token $10,000 available to finance the team's training and all transportation expenses, and only four girls (to be chosen in trials at Lake Placid, N.Y. and Putney, Vt. in January), Miss Chadwick and the team coach, Martin Hall, 32, of Norwich, Vt., will make the trip.

Hopes are fairly high. "These girls can ski every bit as well technically as the Europeans," said Marty Hall. "What they need now is to develop more stamina. And there is only one way to do that—with miles and miles and miles and miles...." Two weeks ago the girls assembled at Winter Park, Colo. for a week-long training session, and in the rarefied air of 10,000 feet they charged again and again around the deep-track courses (cut by a snowmobile), racking up 25, 30, 50 kilometers a day through the serene forest, up steep banks, down curling runs. By evening the ladies seemed temporarily knocked out as they struggled off the course, but, true to their sex, they managed to arrive at dinner perfectly primped, wearing dresses and seemingly fresh from lounging the day away with bonbons and a good book. Some are so young that no sooner was dinner over than they returned to their rooms to do algebra problems so they wouldn't fall behind in their schoolwork.

Their coaches, Hall and John Curtis of Jackson Hole, Wyo., were delighted with the progress. "I think they're going to do better than the men in Czechoslovakia, off" the record," said Hall. "These kids are so determined to do well that one of them—maybe Barbara Britch or Martha Rockwell—might finish in the top ten. Don't be surprised, they're really in fine shape."

Perhaps they have become tough as commandos, but they are still terribly conscious of being girls. "All our exercises are done to strengthen our long muscles, not the little bunchy ones," said Barbara Britch. Trudy Owen, the woodchopper, chimed in, "No boy likes a girl with biceps." And Martha Rockwell said, "The only problem with any of this is that you just have to wait for a boy who loves to run before you get a very active social life. Most of them don't understand what we're doing."

Well, the lovely little women of U.S. Nordic skiing may not have to worry so much about people understanding them in the future. For one thing, touring on skis is rapidly becoming a major pastime. And, who knows? By the Olympics of 1972—given their progress to date—perhaps a medal could show the public just what it is they're up to.