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Ready, Annemarie?

Yes, ready and set to go for the gold in the world championships

Once again the slopes of World Cup ski racing are alive with new prince-lings and pretenders, yet the wait for a king goes on. There are some promising young men on the powerful teams of Italy and Austria who might ascend the throne, but each courtly step upward is filled with maybes. And there are some surprising teen-age ladies-in-waiting from Switzerland, West Germany and (ach!) Liechtenstein. Yet as this racing season slides rapidly toward the International Ski Federation world championships in St. Moritz next week there is but one true monarch in sight—Queen Annemarie of Austria.

There is more than enough evidence that this fierce and arrogant mountain queen rules supreme. She still lights up a defiant cigarette at the finish line after most races, still treats her competition with a disdain suitable for stray dogs, still plays the imperious and outrageous prima donna for befuddled officials of the Austrian team—as last fall when she threatened to quit and race for San Marino in 1974 unless she was allowed to change her brand of skis. Yes, the aggressive, intolerant, petulant, magnificent Annemarie Proell is still with us to dominate World Cup skiing as no one has since Jean-Claude Killy departed six long years ago. And she is only 20.

But as the tests of St. Moritz approach there are those who think they detect a softening, an intimation of mere mortality in La Proell. For one thing she is a newlywed, sporting a white-gold wedding ring and the monicker of a ski salesman-soccer star tacked on to her own. (She is Annemarie Moser-Proell now.) For another, she has been heard to admit in public that she does not always ski a perfect race. For still another, she actually lost a downhill race this season. Yes, after 11 consecutive victories in her specialty (giving her a career total of 30 World Cup wins, compared with Killy's runner-up figure of 18) Frau Moser-Proell was beaten two weeks ago at Grindelwald by a comely blonde American, Cindy Nelson, 18, of Lutsen, Minn. Whether this was truly a hint of vulnerability is problematical, for with the season a bit more than half over, Annemarie has a long lead toward her fourth straight overall World Cup title.

But that is not the same thing as winning gold medals in a world championship. Amazingly, Annemarie has never earned such a medal. In the FIS competition of 1970 at Val Gardena she was third in the downhill, and in the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo she shockingly finished second to Switzerland's Marie-Theres Nadig in both the downhill and the giant slalom. Even so, no one is betting against Annemarie. She is the odds-on favorite to win the downhill and to finish high enough in the giant slalom and slalom to take the gold medal for best combined score in the three events.

Should the queen topple, Nadig could repeat her Sapporo surprise; the Swiss have been training toward a one-week peak for this bash in their home country rather than striving for season-long consistency. Or the rising Nelson, skiing at her best this year after suffering a dislocated hip in 1972, could conceivably produce a gold for the U.S. in the downhill—something no American has ever done.

The only other U.S. woman with a measurable chance of winning a medal at St. Moritz is Barbara Ann Cochran, 22, the slalom champion in Sapporo. Barbara has finished well in her last races after a typically slow start. But as so often is the case, the American team has been rocked by trauma within its coaching ranks. This year Barbara's father, Mickey Cochran, left the head coaching job after the season was barely one month along. A victim of personal disenchantment and U.S. Ski Association politics, he escaped home to Vermont in early January. He was replaced by Henry Tauber, a perennial troubleshooter.

Barbara Cochran's chances in the slalom are not improved by the new princesses from abroad. First, there is the pretty 16-year-old West German maid, Christa Zechmeister. Child though she is, Fraulein Zechmeister has won more races this season than anyone on the circuit except Moser-Proell. In a fine show of consistency, Christa flashed to first place in three straight slaloms. Another fresh young thing on the mountain is 19-year-old Hanny Wenzel. Her father is the director of mountain avalanche control in the gentle, gingerbread principality of Liechtenstein, a country so small that Hanny is its ski team and must train with the Swiss.

The French have a rising star, too—and they certainly need one. Early this season their once-magnificent dynasty was smashed to smithereens. After 18 months of squabbling among ski-federation officials and racers, the new manager of the French team, Jean Vuarnet, fired its best skiers for wheeling and dealing too extravagantly with equipment manufacturers. When the predictable storm of complaint arose, M. Vuarnet was adamant, crying, "Let the dogs bark. Henceforth the equipment makers will no longer dictate the law. If money is to be everything in sport, we may as well go home. Winning medals at any price does not interest us." At one point Killy offered to step in and coach the fired skiers so they might be ready for St. Moritz if the federation changed its mind, but he was unceremoniously turned down.

Out of the rubble of France's former finest, one slim figure has risen to give the team its best finishes of the season so far. She is Fabienne Serrat, and she could win, place or show in either the slalom or giant slalom at St. Moritz.

The men's year has been dominated by the Austrians and Italians, but the three-time World Cup winner, Italy's taciturn Gustav Thöni, 22, has not been displaying his usual silky-smooth slalom form. Indeed, he has not yet won a race. Besides an abnormally slow season's start, Thöni has been handicapped by a new scoring system that further complicates the labyrinthine format for choosing World Cup winners. In certain meets a competitor now is awarded a doubled point total if he scores in both the downhill and slalom. This richly rewards a multi-talented skier and penalizes specialists like slalomist Thöni. Had this scoring system been in effect last season, Austria's David Zwilling would have won the World Cup, not Gustav.

Thöni should do well at St. Moritz, but he may not be the best even in the slalom events. His countryman Piero Gros, 19, is considered a virtuoso. He already has three victories and three other finishes in the top 10 in races this season, and he could win both slalom golds.

The best non-Italian slalom racer appears to be a veteran German, Christian Neureuther. America's Bobby Cochran, an uneven performer, is capable of an any-given-day victory, but so are a dozen other skiers. Who can ever forget that Spaniard, old what's his nombre, who took the gold in Sapporo? (Francisco Fernandez Ochoa, in case you had.) The one not to forget here could be Hansi Hinterseer of Austria, a strong racer who has a win, second and third so far.

But plainly the most exciting skier of the year so far is Austria's lithe 19-year-old downhiller, Franz Klammer. He is possibly the best of the young skiers who are developing the kind of triple-event excellence that was once the specialty of such superheroes as Killy and Karl Schranz. A hard-muscled farm boy from the village of Mooswald in Austrian Carinthia, near the Yugoslav border, Klammer electrified ski racing in early December when he bolted down a precipitous course of boiler-plate ice in Schladming at the astounding average speed of 111.22 kilometers an hour (nearly 70 mph). It was an alltime record for a downhill race. Afterward Klammer forthrightly told an interviewer, "I don't think anything beyond that can be demanded of a downhill racer. It was the limit of what can be done." The Swiss downhiller Bernhard Russi, twice world champion, might have agreed. Russi said, "I don't know how he was able to ski faster than I did. I myself was skiing well beyond my limits."

Klammer is among the hot favorites in the downhill at St. Moritz and should have a good shot at the combined, since he is a workmanlike slalomist, but he will get tough competition in the downhill from Roland Collombin of Switzerland, who has nosed him out in three recent races, the latest coming last weekend in the classic Swiss Lauberhorn, and a 19-year-old Italian, Herbert Plank, as well as from Russi. By winning the Lauberhorn, Collombin clinched the World Cup downhill title, a prize Klammer had boldly hoped to seize himself. "At St. Moritz anyone can win." Klammer had said early in the season. "It's risky to bet everything on it. I'm fighting for victory in the World Cup." Now the stakes at St. Moritz are higher than Klammer had bargained for, with its downhill his greatest single opportunity for sustaining his climb toward stardom. In any case, there is no shortage of bright young princes of racing. Perhaps when they have finished competing in St. Moritz, one will be worthy to reign with the queen.