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Original Issue


At the end of the 1978-79 World Cup ski racing season last March, Ingemar Stenmark flew from Furano, Japan, site of the final race, to Hawaii, where he and a few other skiers, along with Serge Lang, the bluff French journalist who is father, grandfather and godfather of the World Cup circuit, planned to relax on Kauai's Lihue Beach. The season had been long, ultimately tedious, and everyone was sick of skis, snow, mountains. The racers made a pact not to talk about their sport; the first to break the ban would spring for a bottle of champagne. Stenmark sprang. Over dinner he said to Lang, "Tell me about Killy."

Sipping Ingemar's champagne, they spoke about the triple-gold-medal winner of the 1968 Games. They talked especially of Killy's competence as a downhill racer and about Stenmark's consistent refusal to enter that event. "Ingemar said he was bored with doing only the giant slalom and the slalom," Lang recalls. "Same guys, same faces. We talked about how a real legend probably had to ski all three events. Ingemar said, 'I want to be a complete champion.' But he said he did not want to start the downhill until after the Lake Placid Olympics."

But later Stenmark changed his mind. Early last summer he began testing downhill skis on the glaciers above Val Senales in the Italian Alps. In September he started full-time training there. On the morning of Sept. 14 he and the Norwegian racer, Erik Haker, a fine downhiller, made a training run, then another. Stenmark was absolutely at the top of his form.

"He was a second faster than Haker," says Lang, who was there. "He is the supreme racer, and he was doing very high speeds." On his third run, the following day, Stenmark hit a compression at high speed. A bit of wind buffeted him at the same time, and he went out of control and into a violent, tumbling fall over perhaps 200 meters of the glacier. For a moment he was unconscious. Then, lying in the snow, he went into a series of violent spasms and began foaming at the mouth as if he were having an epileptic seizure. Stenmark was helicoptered to a hospital at Bolzano, Italy, where it was discovered he had a major concussion. When Lang saw him later that day, Stenmark, prone in a hospital bed, said, "I'll be back."

Last week he was back. His gold medals in the giant slalom and the slalom did not quite match the legendary feats of Jean-Claude Killy, but Stenmark was still the indisputable king of Whiteface Mountain—though he wasn't the only king on the slope. Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden was at the finish line to witness his subject's triumphs.

Stenmark wasn't always his usual flawless self. In his first run of the GS, he skied an oddly unrhythmic run. Indeed, at the fourth gate from the bottom, he almost fell—something he has not done in years. He lost precious split seconds there, and the next day he was to start the second run from third position. But when Stenmark skied that run, he was once again perfection personified, finishing in 1:20.25, a spectacular .95 of a second ahead of the entire field. He was then escorted into the presence of the other king of the mountain, who said to him, "I was frightened during your run yesterday. I was afraid you would fall." Said Stenmark, "So was I."

The slalom was also a bit of a cliffhanger. The two courses were set down dramatic, steep terrain that formed a fast and very technical run. After the first go-round Stenmark was fourth, .58 of a second behind the leader, Phil Mahre of White Pass, Wash. But then Stenmark produced another of his patented second runs, finishing more than a full second faster than Mahre to win the gold medal with a combined time of 1:44.26 to Mahre's 1:44.76.

If possible. Stenmark is now even more of a national hero than heretofore. Though Bjorn Borg occasionally outranks Stenmark in sports popularity polls in Sweden, there is a warmer feeling for Stenmark because, unlike Borg, he has kept his home in Sweden, pays taxes there and has served his prescribed tour of duty in the army.

Stenmark is a Swede through and through, a stoic fellow whose stubborn shield of shyness cannot be penetrated. He is from cold mountains more than 1,000 miles north of Stockholm, bitter Arctic country where, on winter's shortest days, the sun can be glimpsed for no more than half an hour. Stenmark spent his first six years living on his grandparents' farm, a few miles from his present hometown of Tarnaby. It was a lonely place, with only a few Lapp children living nearby, and young Ingemar skied because, as he says now, "It was a thing I could do alone." After he moved to Tarnaby to be with his parents, he went to school but remained shy to the point of seeming dumbstruck. He was also a grim and stubborn perfectionist, sobbing angrily whenever he was beaten in children's ski races.

Now Stenmark is rich—very rich—and famous—very famous. Indeed, his parents were married in a civil wedding ceremony only four years ago because their son had become so famous. In the hard, pragmatic life-style of the Swedish Arctic, formal marriage has never been considered more than that—a formality—but with all the world watching Ingemar, his mother and father decided to meet others' standards of propriety. As for riches, Stenmark's double gold medals could mean as much as $1 million a year to him.

And Mahre, as the first American man in 16 years to win an Olympic Alpine medal of any color, should make good bucks, too. Indeed, the day after his fine slalom run on Whiteface, he was back on the mountain—this time shooting a commercial for American Express. But anything Mahre gains is only God's proper reward to a tough and courageous young man. The multiple left ankle fracture he suffered less than a year ago in a World Cup giant slalom had so gnashed and mashed the bones of the joint that when Dr. Richard Steadman opened the ankle for surgery and saw the mess in there he said in dismay, "God damn!" In the Olympic slalom it was not his left ankle but a snapped-off gate pole that may have cost him the gold.

The slalom course gates were set with old-fashioned bamboo poles, not the newfangled kind that don't break off; they pop back up when hit by a skier. After a marvelous first run in which he sent gate poles flying, Mahre was in first place by a full .39 of a second. In the critical second run he maneuvered a bit roughly through the first five gates and then struck a pole that became caught between his knees. It stayed there while he twisted through another three or four gates. Later Mahre said, "I was pushing myself too hard from the top, but if I hadn't had the problem with the pole I would have fought it out. With my knees together I just couldn't get rid of it. And I lost my rhythm."

That night Phil, his parents, his twin Steve, three of their seven brothers and sisters and a crowd of ski team members and sponsors celebrated at a Lake Placid restaurant. They toasted Phil, who grinned and blushed brightly, but remained as silent as the Swede who had beaten him. As the group ate dessert, Marc Hodler, president of the Fèdèration Internationale de Ski, entered the room, called for silence and presented Mahre with a gold medal in the shape of a snow-flake. It was for winning the FIS combined events here—a non-Olympic prize to which Phil once again responded with a beet-red blush and silence.

And then there was Liechtenstein's Hanni Wenzel. With her golds in the giant slalom and slalom and her silver in the downhill, Wenzel equaled the feat of Rosi Mittermaier at Innsbruck in 1976, and thereby tied her for the best Alpine performance by a woman in Winter Olympic history. Wenzel is now on the brink of rivaling the queen herself, Annemarie Moser-Pröll, as the preeminent woman skier on the World Cup circuit. Her silver in the downhill was something of a surprise, but her golds in the slaloms were not. In the giant slalom, on a very difficult course, Wenzel felt she had skied badly, and as she waited at the finish she said, "I skied with so many mistakes that I don't see I can win." But she did, although she exclaimed, "I can't believe I won. It can't be true."

True it was, and on the morning of the slalom, a day the color of old dishwater, with strange sticky snow, Wenzel told her coach, Jean-Pierre Fournier of Switzerland, "I feel great and I like the course." Just before she took the chair-lift to the top, her brother, Andreas, 21, who had won a silver in the men's giant slalom, spoke to her. Someone asked him what he had said. "I told her, 'Have a good run.' " And what had Hanni said? "She said, 'Thanks.' " Andreas grinned. "We don't waste many words," he said.

All the Alpine events on Whiteface were like that: everyone from the silent Swede to the tongue-tied twin to the eminently unloquacious Liechtensteiner preferred to let his or her feats—and his or her medals—speak for themselves.


Little Liechtenstein won big with Wenzel.


Although he won the giant slalom, Stenmark lost his rhythm on his first run, frightening his king.


Stenmark (13) got a second gold in the slalom, while Mahre capped his comeback with a silver.