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There's Gold In Them Thar Hills

Trouble is, the U.S. Olympic skiers are having big problems finding it

"It would be real easy to lie facedown in the snow, kick your feet and go, 'Oh, my Gaaaaahhd! What's wrong? We're not winning!' But it doesn't help to yell and scream when things are going like this. Winning will happen pretty soon. We know that for sure."

So spoke America's Tamara McKinney, 21, in Bad Gastein, Austria last week as she analyzed the fortunes and misfortunes of the U.S. Alpine ski team thus far in the bleak, dry racing season of 1983-84. Winning ski races, of course, is something about which McKinney is one of the greatest living authorities, being the No. 1 woman skier on the World Cup circuit last season.

Even more expert on the subject is America's Phil Mahre, 26, who last year won his third consecutive overall World Cup for men and is trying this winter for his fourth in a row—something no male skier, not even Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, has ever done. In Wengen, Switzerland last week Phil shrugged and said, "There's frustration now. But I imagine things will get on track as the season goes on. It will get better."

It has to. Indeed, all optimism concerning the U.S. Ski Team's pursuit of gold medals at Sarajevo next month is rooted almost entirely in faith, hope and past performance. As of Monday, the U.S. could count only one victory in 26 races since the World Cup season started on Dec. 1. McKinney was ranked fifth on the World Cup list with 106 points, 83 behind the leader, Hanni Wenzel of Liechtenstein. Mahre's plight was much worse. In a bizarre season of bad luck, bad vibes, bad weather, bad schedules and all-around bad skiing, Mahre was an abysmal 54th overall, with a mere nine points, 113 behind the leader, Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland. His twin, Steve, who won the gold medal in the giant slalom in the 1982 world championships in Schladming, Austria, was doing a little better. Steve was 40th with 15 points, thanks mostly to a third place in a slalom in Courmayeur, Italy on Dec. 13. His standing was no thanks to a freakish situation that arose Monday in Parpan, Switzerland, where Steve did his best skiing of the year but came up empty. Steve appeared to have edged Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg by .29 of a second in a World Cup slalom, but it had been discovered after the first heat that the twins had mistakenly worn each other's starting numbers. Officials allowed the Mahres to ski the second run while they sorted through the confusion. After it appeared Steve had won his first World Cup race this year, and Phil, in his best finish of the season, had placed sixth, both skiers were disqualified.

So what does this all mean? The world was just beginning to get used to the dazzling idea of The Great American Ski Team, a glamorous and dashing bunch of overachievers who could blow the opposition off the mountain with inspiring consistency. The golden dream had begun in 1982, when the U.S. women's team won the overall world championship. McKinney wasn't yet scoring well, but Christin Cooper, 24, the ex-ballet student from Sun Valley, won two silver medals and a bronze in the world championships and finished third in the overall World Cup that year. Cindy Nelson, 28, the 13-year veteran from the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior, got a silver in the Schladming downhill and wound up fifth for the overall Cup. Holly Flanders, a sometimes shy and uncertain 26-year-old from Deerfield, N.H., skied like a bully and won two World Cup downhills, something no American had done, and then finished second in the season's downhill standings, the best American performance ever. This was heady stuff. Unprecedented. And last year, though Cooper suffered a devastating leg injury in midseason and Flanders faded completely, McKinney was magnificent. She won seven races—no U.S. woman had ever won more than two—and the women's World Cup title, another American first.

Of course, the Mahre twins were a great American team unto themselves. Phil had his triple-trophy overall World Cup record and Steve his world championship, both U.S. firsts. Phil had won four World Cup titles in 1982 (overall, combined, giant slalom and slalom). Steve finished third in the overall World Cup standings in 1982 and in 1983 won his seventh and eighth career Cup races, a total exceeded by only one American male, brother Phil, who has won 16.

So hopes were high as the 1983-84 season began. Cooper's leg had been repaired by Dr. Richard Steadman, the team's orthopedic surgeon, and Steve Mahre was recovered from a painful shoulder injury that had slowed him in '82-83. The women's team twice went to New Zealand for intense summer snow training. Bill Marolt, the U.S. team's director, said with satisfaction, "We've never had such good training. The racing season was over April 10, and by May 20 we were back on the snow."

This was decidedly not true of the twins, who only listen to training advice that comes from God or each other. Phil finally finished building his house outside of Yakima, Wash, after three solid summers of hard work. As usual, neither Phil nor Steve did any kind of serious, concentrated off-season training. People have long criticized them for this laid-back attitude, but there is no quarreling with the success it has brought them.

Considering all the American riches on the slopes, medals—some of them gold—seemed to be almost a foregone conclusion for U.S. skiers in the Olympic Games. McKinney, Cooper, Nelson and the Mahres all seemed to be people you could count on at Sarajevo. If not five gold medals, certainly one. Or two. And some silvers. And all kinds of bronzes.

But the wild optimism has given way to an aura of pessimism. John Atkins, for six years the innovative and outspoken trainer of the women's team, said last week, "When a team has been on top, the American tendency is to reject it the minute it doesn't repeat its successes. Right now, some people are saying that the Dallas Cowboys are a piece of junk. That's ridiculous. The ski team is also feeling vibes of dissatisfaction because we aren't meeting the fantastic expectations people have for us."

So what—if anything—is the trouble with The Great American Ski Team? First, let's make the point that there are definitely two American ski teams—the men's and the women's—and that they are totally different socially, emotionally and competitively. As Austria's veteran head coach, Charley Kahr, says, "In America you have no men's team, you have two brothers." Basically, that's true—and two iconoclastic, individualistic brothers at that. In contrast, the American women are a tightly knit unit of perhaps a dozen racers and coaches who've been together through thick and thin for five years or longer. They are a team, unified and interdependent, given to supporting each other, driving each other, admiring each other. Anything that happens to one member of the women's team affects them all. But what happened to Nelson, the oldest and most revered of the women, on Dec. 11 in Vald'Is√®re, France, was devastating. She crashed in the giant slalom and destroyed her right knee, tearing ligaments in a way that left her with no lateral support in the joint. Before Nelson left for home, she delivered a valediction to her teammates assembled around her bed. Cooper recalls it this way: "She told us to start enjoying one race at a time, to stop bitching about the weather and the courses and the schedule. She told us she might not be coming back but that we were all able to race, so we should enjoy ourselves because something like that could happen to us at any time. God, that brought reality home to us. We all thought old Cindy was immortal." Maybe she is. This week Nelson will return to Europe to train for the Olympics.

"The loss of Nelson hurt," says women's coach Michel Rudigoz. "We don't have her race results to bolster everyone, and we also don't have her leadership." Yes, that hurt. And so did the worst case of snowless mountains the Alps had suffered in years. And so did some lousy scheduling, with World Cup races scattered from the Balkans to Bavaria in a random fashion that required exhausting marathons of long-distance driving. All this has hurt the women's team. But how badly?

Well, there are no victories thus far, it's true. But McKinney had a second, two sixths and a fourth, then got hot and finished fourth in Saturday's Bad Gastein slalom and second in the Sunday slalom in Maribor, Yugoslavia. Cooper had a seventh and two sixths, one in Bad Gastein, and came through with her best finish, a third, in Maribor. Things were looking up. Debbie Armstrong, 20, a second-year team member from Seattle, was skiing at last with what could become a consistent, powerhouse style; she had a third in a super-giant slalom at Puy St. Vincent, France. And Flanders finished eighth and ninth in recent downhills—her finest results since her super year of 1982.

"We wouldn't complain if we won a few races, but we're O.K.," said McKinney last week. "I'm just not quite right on my skis. I'm not quite seeing as far or as quickly down the course as I should. Little things like that haven't happened quite right in a race." Cooper put it this way: "What's happening is that we're skiing at a high level, but we're not competing at a high level. Little mental mistakes in races—that's all that's wrong. We're ready for some momentum now. A couple of top-three finishes as we get closer to Sarajevo will do it." McKinney added, "The coaches trust us. We trust each other. We have plenty of confidence."

The U.S. men don't have the same high hopes. True, there have been decent performances by skiers with names other than Mahre. Vermont's Tiger Shaw, 22, slammed out of the 34th starting position in Adelboden, Switzerland to finish 13th in his first World Cup giant slalom. And the monumentally temperamental Bill Johnson, 23, of Los Angeles startled the World Cup circuit by winning the downhill—the first time an American has ever won a men's World Cup downhill—in Wengen on Sunday. Granted, the course had been shortened because of high winds, but the victory was still sweet, especially since Johnson made a miraculous recovery after he nearly fell and then skied off the course.

Still, as Sarajevo approaches, the heart of the U.S. men's team is named Phil and Steve. Early-season success has rarely been part of their pattern, but this year the twins' results have been awful beyond comparison. Konrad Rickenbach, the U.S. men's coach, was born in Switzerland and raised in California, and is a close friend of the twins. Rickenbach said last week, "They lack concentration. They have no touch on the snow. They've been static on their skis. They aren't fluid. They're training and racing as if it's a job instead of something fun." The twins did so badly during December, and the snow in the Alps was so scarce, that two weeks before Christmas they shocked World Cup officials by leaving the circuit to go home and train at the ski area their father operates at White Pass, Wash. Did it help? The first race after their return was the Jan. 10 giant slalom at Adelboden. Phil went off the course at the eighth gate. Steve was 29th after the first run, then fell, on the second. Then came Monday's strange doings at Parpan. Although the twins were disappointed by the disqualifications—Steve called Girardelli's win a "hollow victory"—the ski team had to be encouraged by what were four fast Mahre runs. Still, the question remains: Will Parpan provide the impetus for the twins to surge in the next weeks, or will it further disturb and discourage them?

Even before the race the twins seemed baffled and perhaps a bit burned out. In Wengen, where he was waiting for the downhill race, Phil spoke with the candor that has been the twins' trademark. "I'm not skiing my potential, and it's mental more than anything. I remember last year when I was here in Switzerland, I was up on the course, lying in the snow, when Konrad came by. I said, 'You know, I just don't need this anymore. I got a family. What am I doing here? This is a joke.' Well, this year my attitude is about the same. I'm up on the mountain training and I think, 'What a joke.' I think I'm doing this for others—for the press, for the coaches—and not for myself. There is frustration. I know where I want to be on the course. I know when to tuck, and I know when to turn, but I'm not doing them with the concentration it takes to be competitive."

This would seem to be a malaise of some seriousness. The Swiss journalist Patrick Lang, perhaps Europe's top ski racing reporter and a friend of the Mahres, said sadly, "It is a time of depression for Phil. He is slumping. He does not know what to do. Often ski racing is like that: You don't know why you are losing, and you don't know why you are winning. I don't think Phil and Steve need ski racing the way other racers do. They are family men. Look at Stenmark. He has no family; he has only ski racing. He cares only about making money, only about winning ski races."

Motivating the Mahres may be a problem indeed, particularly in regard to the Olympics. "I can take or leave an Olympic medal," Phil said, repeating something he has said in the past. "It doesn't mean anything more than I'm the best in the world for one day. You draw from all your resources, all your past experiences and from all your reservoir of good luck, and you just hope that it will all come together for that one race. If they gave an Olympic gold medal for the best father in the world, I'd take that. It wouldn't mean just one day of being the best, but years of it. Skiing has been real profitable for me. I accomplished more in skiing and I stayed longer than I ever thought I would when I started. My family is my big stabilizing force now. Home, that's what means something to me, not ski racing."

Home and family and stability. Phil and Steve each have one child, and their wives are pregnant again. Indeed, Phil's wife, Holly, is expecting at the end of February and could well produce an Olympic baby. Does all this mean that the Oh, My Gaaaaahhd! philosophy of pessimism and bad vibes should prevail in regard to Sarajevo and the twins? No, it doesn't. This isn't the first time these two have bemoaned their lot. In this, they've been honest to a fault. The difference now is that they were always winning at least a few races at the same time they were decrying their fate. So, if victories and top-three finishes begin adding up for the Mahres in the weeks before the Olympics, you'll know that all's well with the twins. And if they don't, well, uh...Oh, My Gaaaaahhd!


No. 1 in the World Cup last year, McKinney is a disappointing No. 5 so far this season.



Cooper, a star in '82, is struggling back after missing much of last season with an injury.


Phil Mahre seemed to have difficulty just getting out of the gate, let alone winning races.


Johnson's downhill win—a U.S. first—gave our skiers something to write home about.