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Original Issue

They've Put The U.S. On Top Of The World

In the most triumphant week ski-racing America has ever known, Phil Mahre and Tamara McKinney took charge of the World Cup

Until last week, a lot of people saw this as the ski-racing season that wasn't. It had been marred by months of thick weather and thin snow in Europe, of delays that led to a rash of cancellations that led to a series of long, grim layovers in cramped hotel rooms that led to long, grim drives over bleak Alpine roads. In all the dismal crisscrossing of the European continent since the season began in December, no one, man or woman, had been able to sustain any momentum. No one was able to take charge. Nothing jelled. The usually dazzling white circus of World Cup racing had turned a telltale gray—unfocused, unresolved, uninspiring and, most of all, un-fun.

But then in a few short days, from March 5 to March 12, the whole glum mess took on shape, size, light and substance. In a series of eight races in eight days, all held in the manifestly non-European environs of Colorado, New Hampshire, Quebec and Alberta, the World Cup suddenly became galvanized and—amazingly enough—almost totally North Americanized.

The upswing began at Mont Tremblant in Quebec on Saturday, March 5, when Laurie Graham of Canada won a women's downhill in dismal weather. It proceeded apace in Aspen on the following day, when another Canadian, a magnificently muscled redhead named Todd Brooker, swept to victory down the beautifully prepared course on Ajax Mountain. But that was only a hint of the New World splendor that was to come. For over the next six days, in a spree unprecedented in history, three U.S. stars—Phil Mahre, 25, of Yakima, Wash., Tamara McKinney, 20, of Lexington, Ky. and Cindy Nelson, 27, of Lutsen, Minn.—sped to five victories, two seconds and a third in six races.

By the time the powder had settled, two spectacular things had happened in U.S. skiing: 1) Mahre had won two races and wrapped up his third consecutive overall World Cup title, soundly defeating the Swedish superstar Ingemar Stenmark. By winning title No. 3 Mahre tied Italy's Gustavo Thoeni and Stenmark for most consecutive Cups. 2) McKinney, the balletic speed demon who won three races last week and seems to be on the brink of becoming the best female American ski racer ever, had all but clinched the overall World Cup for women. She had pulled ahead of last year's champion, the hard-skiing Erika Hess, 21, of Switzerland, and only a double victory by Hess in the season's last two races this weekend in Japan, combined with an abysmal performance by McKinney in both races, could deny McKinney the Cup. McKinney also sewed up the season's giant slalom title in New Hampshire, but other Americans (including McKinney herself in 1981) had done that before. A victory over Hess for the overall championship would be historic, because no American woman skier has ever won the World Cup.

Beaming with relief and pleasure, McKinney spoke for everyone on the U.S. Ski Team at the end of her wild and triumphant week, saying, "Well, it's almost spring, and I guess we all sort of got a second wind."

True enough, and no one needed a rebirth more than the ski team. It had produced a sterling season last year. At the 1982 World Championships at Schladming, Austria, Phil Mahre's twin, Steve, had won the giant slalom and thus collected the U.S.'s first gold medal in a world championship men's ski race—ever. McKinney had been slowed by a hand injury at Schladming but Christin Cooper, 23, had gotten three medals by herself, and Nelson had won one, too. The U.S. women had then gone on to earn the 1982 Nation's Cup, emblematic of the best team in the world. And Phil was almost supernatural in winning his second World Cup: He made it such a runaway that he clinched the title before the end of January.

This year things were not so easy. Bill Marolt, director of the U.S. Alpine program, said, "The whole team let down after last year. Besides that, everyone was out to beat us. We were no longer those nice kids from the U.S. We were the ones on top, and everyone was shooting at us. Plus everyone had bad snow in the summer and autumn training, so even though the quality was there on the circuit, the consistency wasn't. Even Stenmark failed to finish several races—something he never does."

The Mahres were among the skiers who had gone cold, and at the end of December neither was in serious contention for any titles. In January and early February, Steve picked up two slalom victories, but he had severely strained the rotator cuff in his left shoulder when he fell during an exhibition night slalom in Switzerland. It was an agonizing injury, and he aggravated it every time he slapped against a slalom pole. It got to be so painful that after crossing the finish line in one race, he sagged and nearly fainted on the spot. And Steve's giant slalom performances were so dismal that, depending on his showing in Japan, he may be dropped from the first seed of 15.

Meanwhile Phil's record in Europe was just good enough that he managed to stay at or close to the top in the overall World Cup standings. He picked up a few first-five finishes in slaloms and giant slaloms and gained a surprising number of points in the downhill. Phil amazingly produced eight top-20 finishes in downhills, even though he rarely has had time to train for this fiercely fast and intensely specialized discipline. His difficulties were multiplied because the Fédération Internationale de Ski, the governing body of the sport, had introduced a strange new race known as the super giant slalom—a cross between a downhill and a GS. Angered by the very concept of this bastardized event, Phil refused to enter any of the three scheduled, thus reducing his World Cup point-scoring potential.

The Mahre twins are nothing if not refreshingly—and relentlessly—candid. What they think, they say. At press conference after press conference, they made no bones about their disenchantment with ski racing. Not long ago Steve summed up the season this way: "The negatives seemed to have a way of overpowering the positives. We both believe that there is a lot more to life than ski racing." Phil said flatly the night before racing began in Aspen, "This is the worst year I've had. None of it means as much to me as it has in the past. I've had trouble holding my mind so that I can concentrate on two runs in a row."

One thing the twins did in an attempt to improve their morale was to transport their wives and babies from the States to the often glum and gritty chaos of the European circuit. During January and much of February, this troupe—Steve and his wife, Debbie, 21, and daughter Ginger, 15 months, and Phil and his wife, Holly, 20, and their 5-month-old daughter, Lindsay—did the Cup tour together. The families lived in tiny hotel rooms littered with ski jackets, diapers, booties, ski boots, long Johns, pacifiers and playpens. The twins would go off in the morning to train on the slopes, like commuters catching the 6:59 to the office. At every race, mothers and babies would appear promptly at the finish line before the start, watch (or sleep) through the competition and then return to their home-for-the-night. The transient life seemed to agree with everyone involved, including the children. Tom Kelly, the U.S. men's slalom and giant slalom coach, said, "At first we weren't sure if it would work, but they are such great people—including the babies—that it actually added a lot to everyone's life on the tour."

But other observers took a decidedly less upbeat view of such family travel. Patrick Lang, a leading Swiss ski-racing journalist and son of Serge Lang, godfather of the World Cup, said, "Even if their wives and kids made the Mahres happy, I think it might have confused them. And something more: Before this, the brothers had each other around all the time, always together and always getting whatever it is that twins give each other. With their families there, this was missing, and it might have hurt them both."

Whatever the pros or cons of family life on the circuit, Phil at least was able to turn his mediocre season around once he got to the United States. It was a critical juncture, because he was leading Stenmark by a mere 21 points when the races in Aspen—a downhill and a giant slalom—began last week. Under the byzantine scoring system used in the World Cup, there was a grand variety of ways in which Phil could win—or lose—the big prize.

One of the equations included the seemingly insane idea that Phil might actually win the downhill in Aspen on March 6. Actually, it was not as crazy as it appeared because he has improved his downhill technique—and his desire to win one such race—to such an extent that he now stands among the dozen or so best downhillers in the world. "I guess the only major challenge left for me in ski racing is to win a downhill," he said. "It's something I've never done and I'd really like it." As it happened, Phil did very well at Aspen, finishing ninth, and he might have placed even higher if he hadn't slipped wide on a turn halfway down the course.

The marvelous young Brooker, a hard-charging racer in the Kamikaze Kanadian mold who skis every race with much the same dash and daring that Franz Klammer brought to his famed 1976 Olympic run at Innsbruck, managed somehow to stay upright and finish first in the Aspen downhill. The aging (28) Klammer, who came to Colorado leading in downhill points for the season, wound up 13th and seemed to fall out of the running for the title. However, six days later, at Lake Louise in Alberta, the Kaiser, as he used to be known in Austria, managed to produce a dramatic second-place finish behind teammate Helmut Hoeflehner to clinch the season's downhill championship—a tribute to the wisdom and tranquillity of old age, even in ski racers.

It was the Aspen giant slalom on Monday, March 7, that set the stage for Phil's final triumph. This was something of a surprise, given his rather gloomy state of mind and the fact that he hadn't won a race all season. Stenmark had been closing fast on Mahre, chalking up three victories in the last six races, and after the first run at Aspen, he was in second place, a hairsbreadth .13 of a second behind Mahre. This, history has shown, is the position Stenmark likes best. But on this day, for some reason, Stenmark fell short on his second run, finishing .47 of a second behind as Mahre finished first in the run—and the race.

As usual, given the arcane arithmetic of World Cup scoring, no one was absolutely sure what all this meant. Had Mahre won the Cup or not? It turned out that he had—unless Stenmark were able to finish first in the Lake Louise downhill. But since Stenmark never skis downhills, Mahre had indeed won his Cup. This good news was met with an almost eerie lack of celebration. Mahre and Stenmark shook hands, Phil's wife smiled, and his daughter woke up briefly and blinked dazedly. And that was it—perhaps as fitting a reaction to a championship won in this snake-bitten racing season as one could hope for.

The next day, on another giant slalom course at Vail, Mahre seemed fully energized, and he spun off two powerful, no-nonsense runs that blew Stenmark right off the hill. This time the crowd, no longer in any doubt as to who the Cup champ was, howled and hooted in celebration of Mahre's victory, and his mother sneaked into the finish area to give him a big hug.

Meanwhile cause for cheering was developing in another part of the country. In Waterville Valley, N.H., the women's half of the World Cup troupe had arrived in dense and drizzling weather to hold a series of three races, a slalom and two giant slaloms. As this chill, moist competition was about to start, there was no good reason for optimism among the Americans. Earlier in the season McKinney had won three races and had held a small lead over the usually indomitable Hess and the relentless veteran Hanni Wenzel of Liechtenstein, but after that brief moment of glory McKinney had fallen behind. On Jan. 28 her U.S. co-star and friend, Cooper, had broken her left leg in a fall and had been lost to the team for the rest of the season.

Now the pressure on McKinney became particularly intense, because she was the only American remaining in the top seed of both the slalom and giant slalom. She plunged into a terrible tailspin, failing to finish three consecutive races following Cooper's injury. Eventually, she grew tired of being asked about the possible connection between her rash of bad performances and Cooper's absence, though she did say, "Yes, I think that Christin and I helped each other. When I would go down and have a good run, she would gain confidence because she knew she could do the same. It worked the other way around with me—if she could do it, so could I. Maybe I put too much pressure on myself with Christin gone. But that doesn't mean I can't win when she isn't here."

Maybe so, but having skied off the course in a giant slalom on Mont Tremblant on March 6, McKinney might well have resigned herself to a lackluster effort on the soggy slopes of Waterville Valley. This she obviously didn't do. In the first race, a slalom, she finished second to Roswitha Steiner of Austria, while Hess, who normally skis with the consistency of a Swiss watch, celebrated her 21st birthday by taking a most uncharacteristic fall just three gates into the second run. The 20 points McKinney earned for the race boosted her back into the World Cup lead with 182 points, seven ahead of Hess, eight ahead of Wenzel.

The next day, with sleet and ice underfoot, McKinney clattered down a GS course that had the consistency of icecube cobblestones and finished first—but only after a heart-stopping foul-up when the automatic clocks failed to work. Both McKinney and Hess had to wait until an assortment of hand-operated watches could be read and correlated. Now momentum was building, boosting McKinney upward.

On Thursday, a day of rain at Waterville Valley, McKinney breezed down the GS course, finishing first again, gaining 10 more points in the overall standings and now leading Hess by a solid—but not certain—17 points. Wenzel, who finished 18th that day, was all but out of the running. And between the weather and McKinney's relentless onslaught, even Hess was reeling. "With such rain and bad weather, I suddenly get sick of it all, and now I'm beginning to think about it," Hess said. "I have not the feeling I had last year when I felt I would win. I really can't quite find that feeling, I'm afraid."

Hess couldn't quite find the feeling two days later in Vail, either, though she came close. It was another giant slalom and, yes, another U.S. triumph. In the first run Nelson put together a wonderful, slashing attack on the course—"My best race since 1976," she declared afterward—and led by a mere .01 of a second. Right behind her was McKinney, and in third stood Hess. So now the battle was joined. To gain any points under the World Cup scoring system, McKinney had to finish first. Nothing less would do. Nelson has been skiing better this season than she has in years—she had a victory in a super giant slalom and a third in a giant slalom before she got to Vail; now she stands fifth in the overall World Cup race. After the race, when asked if she had entertained the thought of throwing the victory to teammate McKinney to help her charge toward the overall title, Nelson spoke in firm tones, saying, "I certainly did not. I haven't won a giant slalom in many, many years. I tried as hard as I could."

Indeed she did. But McKinney had gotten a second wind that no one could match. She flashed down that second run a full .63 faster than Nelson and a stunning 1.23 quicker than Hess. That order stood for the overall result: McKinney, Nelson, Hess. Had Hess finished fourth or worse, McKinney would clearly have won the World Cup then and there. Even given Hess's third, for a time it appeared that McKinney had clinched. But, no one was quite sure—a remarkably common situation in this sport.

As the three medal winners assembled on the victory stand to accept flowers, trophies, champagne and blessings from former President Gerald Ford, word seeped through the crowd that McKinney had wrapped up the championship. Soon an announcement to that effect was made over the P.A. system. But shortly afterward there were second thoughts, second guesses and assorted harrumphings by the Major Hooples of the sport, and then, belatedly and lamely, came word that the McKinney-Hess race for the World Cup would be strung out for another week.

Ah, but that was a small matter. It had been the best week of American ski racing ever, and one that may have presaged gold for the U.S. on the Olympic slopes of Sarajevo next year.



Mahre (left) and McKinney were skiing in peak form as they each won an important World Cup giant slalom event in Vail.


McKinney could afford to be generous with the bubbly after virtually clinching the Cup.


Hess (above) arrived in the U.S. a leader but left an apparent loser. Stenmark had an uphill struggle because he won't ski the downhill.


Though her winning might have cost McKinney the title, Nelson tried her best at Vail.


Brooker, Canada's red-hot redhead, burned up the Aspen course to win his second Cup downhill.


Conditions at Waterville Valley were so bad that officials formed ranks to break the ice.


Mahre's cheering section included wife Holly, daughter Lindsay.