All week long the sun beat down on the tiny village of Sestriere, and the racers spent most of the time sitting on the windowsills of the Cristallo Hotel getting tanned and getting bored. It was Kandahar race week on the world tour, and the snow that is guaranteed to cover the Italian Alps every December had this time failed to live up to the warranty. The mountain racecourses were crusty on top and soft underneath, too dangerous for a men's downhill, and with that event canceled about the only thing to do was to wait for closing day and the men's slalom. That would be the day when the proud Italians would see their own ace, Gustav Th√∂ni, whip the skiing world. And if not Th√∂ni, well then surely the dashing and aggressive Frenchman, Jean-Noel Augert.
Viva Th√∂ni? Alors Augert? Not exactly. When it was all over, the winner of the World Cup slalom—and a new threat in that event for the 972 Winter Olympics—was a lean, freckled 21-year-old madcap from North Conway, N.H. named Tyler Palmer. He did it, as they say in skiing, the hard way.
A few weeks ago the U.S. Ski Association had hesitated to send Palmer off on the European circuit. Despite his obvious potential—he was third in World Cup slalom last year—Palmer has been considered something of an eccentric, and when the committee finally decided to deliver his plane ticket the season's first two race meets were already over. As if that were not bad enough, on Kandahar race day the hotel concierge failed to awaken Palmer at 6:30 a.m. and, while the team was assembling, he blissfully slept on. An hour late, he dashed for the slope without breakfast and then—at the top of the course—discovered his skis weren't there. The coaches were not exactly amused. Finally equipped and buckled in, Palmer was third starter.
It is a good thing that Palmer likes thrills ("The icier it is, the better he loves it," says one coach) because the racecourse was purest glaze. But, true to his promise, he sliced at it in his distinctive style, the sort of form that the experts call clean. His time, 57.97 seconds, was roundly applauded, but the partisan Italians were not unduly alarmed. However, after both Gustav and cousin Rolando Th√∂ni had done badly, and after jet-turn specialist Patrick Russel of France had fallen on the ice, came the totaling-up: Palmer had the fastest time.
On the next run Augert, who had the second-fastest time, was the early starter. He hacked out a trail of knocked-over poles, which is perfectly legal, while posting an impressive 56.90 seconds. Take that, you Americans.
Then Palmer leaped away, and about 15 gates from the finish got into the sort of impossible body position that the French claim they strive for. There he was, almost flat on his back at full speed, about to miss a gate. Suddenly, he pulled himself upright with a mighty bounce, made the gate and finished zooming. His time was a tidy 57.33 seconds, not quite as fast as Augert but, counting both runs, more than .5 of a second faster for both runs. The result was that rarity in world skiing: an American man beating the best.
After the race U.S. Men's Coach Hanspeter Rohr said, "Palmer's win was no fluke and it was no surprise to me. Last year he was fourth in FIS slalom rankings. He is a smooth skier who gets very aggressive. He is not very easy to handle in training, he is not easy to lead. He does what I tell him, but when he doesn't like it he shows it, and then I have to go and talk to him.'
Now that he is an international slalom contender, Palmer may well be easier to train. After his victory he abandoned plans for a relaxing Christmas vacation at Augert's home in France (Augert was pretty grouchy about the race anyway) in favor of more training.
"Two years ago they called me the flake," Palmer said, "but they don't call me that anymore. When I was losing races they were saying, 'This guy is crazy,' which wasn't true at all. I just had to learn what was right and wrong."
Palmer had to talk fast to convince U.S. Alpine Director Willy Schaeffler that he was mature enough to go after an Olympic medal. Palmer was in shape, Schaeffler agreed, but what of his non-ski activities? Like motorcycle racing?
"Nothing to worry about," Palmer told Schaeffler. "On the Fourth of July I was in a heat with about 40 entries and I wasn't used to racing in such a big crowd. I was trying to pass this one guy, but he hit me and I hit the front brake real hard. I flipped. The bike fell on top of me and this guy rode right over my arm. So I just packed up and quit. No more motorcycle races for me."
Coach Schaeffler beamed. What he wants is a ski racer.