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Original Issue

Hail And Farewell To Legends

U.S. women and men Alpine skiers won six World Cup races in nine days, but they lost a pair of aces

As it turned out, it was a week of the stuff of which ski racing legends are made—on several levels and in several places. When the twin Olympic heroes, Phil and Steve Mahre, winners of gold and silver, respectively, in the Sarajevo slalom, retired from World Cup racing in Vail, Colo, last week, no one doubted that their accomplishments could be described as legendary—except for a few over-the-hill Olympians who couldn't stand to let these "kids" enter a largely ceremonial race called the Legends of Skiing. Then there was that legend-to-be, Olympic gold medal downhiller Bill Johnson, 23, who on Sunday won his fourth consecutive major race, a World Cup downhill on Whistler Mountain in British Columbia. It's hard to remember that until two months ago, Johnson had never triumphed in a world-class event. Finally, there were the U.S. women, who achieved four victories in the five World Cup races that were held in North America. They were led by the youngest and the smallest legend of them all, 21-year-old Tamara McKinney, who stands 5'4" and weighs 117.

For McKinney, the 1983 women's overall World Cup champion, this had been a year of disappointment. While teammates Debbie Armstrong and Chris-tin Cooper reveled in the glitter of gold and silver medals, respectively, in the Olympic giant slalom, McKinney had only a courageous comeback fourth in the GS and a DNF in the slalom at Sarajevo. Plus she hadn't won a World Cup race and had only a dispiriting series of top-five finishes to show for the year.

Why? Well, for one thing, McKinney had been thrown off stride by the crippling pre-Olympic pressure. "All that publicity and hype, the magazine covers, the expectations, the pressure—I had no control over any of it," she said last week. "It was very tough in Sarajevo because I was supposed to put all my hopes and dreams into two minutes of one day. I got so tired of it all that I just lost track of myself."

Last Thursday the U.S. women took a seven-hour bus ride from Lake Placid, N.Y., where they'd skied in a World Cup giant slalom, to the next set of races in Waterville Valley, N.H., and it was during this long drive that McKinney began to emerge from the doldrums. "I've been burned out the last couple of months, but on that ride I began to get my sense of humor back," she said later. "I began to feel like myself again. I really missed myself, you know, but I finally feel like me again."

Lo and behold, in last Saturday's slalom on Mount Tecumseh, McKinney was also skiing like herself again. In a dashing, reckless first run in which she nearly missed a gate, she wound up with a gigantic .65 of a second lead over the field. It was enough so that she could return to her more typical floating style for the second run and still easily wrap up her first World Cup victory since last March. Not only that, the win put her a mere two points behind first-place Erica Hess of Switzerland in the season's World Cup slalom rankings. The next day, McKinney did it again; she won the giant slalom, finishing a hefty half-second ahead of runner-up Hess, while Cooper came in third. For McKinney the Mount Tecumseh courses are seemingly an elixir: She has won four of the five World Cup races there over the past two years and was second in the fifth.

But for all her excellence, McKinney barely outshone her teammates. Indeed, as the U.S. successes kept piling up, two other skiers' decisions to follow the Mahres into retirement were reversed: Downhiller Holly Flanders, 26, who won her first World Cup race in two years, and Cindy Nelson, 28, long the anchor of the women's team, announced they would probably go on for another season.

The resurrection of Flanders occurred March 3 on Mont Ste.-Anne near Quebec City, Canada, where the temperature was a savage 22° below zero, the coldest race day of the year on the World Cup circuit. After winning two downhills in 1982 and finishing second in the World Cup standings in that event, Flanders became mired in mediocrity. She did no better than 16th at Sarajevo, and her training runs on Mont Ste.-Anne were uniformly dismal. She said later, "I was getting more and more angry, and all my anger came out in the-race. When you're as angry as I was, you just have to do it right." And she did, flying down that hill of blue ice to win by .70 of a second.

If Flanders was fueled by ire, her newly famous teammate—giant slalom gold medalist Armstrong—simply ran out of gas. Reeling from the post-Olympic deluge of public adulation, she had no heart for entering the downhill and sadly told her coaches, "I don't have my head together. If I race, it would probably be dangerous." Armstrong then finished a dejected 24th in the super-giant slalom the next day. After that, the women's head coach, Michel Rudigoz, agreed that it was time for Armstrong to go home to Seattle and take a week off.

The other U.S. results in that Super G in Quebec were more heartening: Cooper finished third, while McKinney got sixth and Nelson ended up a respectable 15th. After the race Nelson said, "I'm somewhat unfulfilled. If I'd had a medal at Sarajevo, I would have quit. Now, I probably won't." She decided to hang in despite the fact that her right knee was so severely injured in December that she underwent arthroscopic surgery and now must race in a bulky special brace. This spring Nelson will have another operation in which an artificial ligament made of Gortex will be put in her knee.

The next women's race was the giant slalom on March 7 at Lake Placid's fiercely windy Whiteface Mountain. This time it was Cooper's turn to excel: She won both runs and came in first by a substantial .77 of a second over runner-up Marina Kiehl of West Germany. Before the race Cooper had discussed her penchant for finishing second—besides her Sarajevo silver, she'd gotten two silvers at the 1982 world championships at Schladming, Austria. "Of all the second places I've had," she said, "the only one that really hurt was at the Olympics. God, I've won so many individual runs, but so few races. I think I've learned something since the Olympics. I've been trying something different—like believing in myself. At the nationals [at Copper Mountain, Colo, on Feb. 25, where Cooper won both giant slalom runs] I was really optimistic. But after I led the first run, I said to myself, 'If you are second again, Christin, you're taking up underwater macrame.' Well, after I won I felt like a little kid winning for the very first time. I knew I was ready to win some races."

Indeed she was. And after her victory at Lake Placid, she acted exactly like a little kid winning for the first time: She took off her skis, flung herself onto her back and kicked her feet wildly in the air. Her enthusiasm was understandable. The triumph bounced Cooper to first in the World Cup giant slalom standings. Hess took back the lead by placing second, between McKinney and Cooper, at Waterville, but it's a dogfight as the circuit heads back to Europe for the final two weeks of racing.

Meanwhile, on the western ranges of the continent, Johnson was sweeping all before him. On March 4 he dashed down Aspen Mountain to win a most significant and satisfying World Cup downhill—his third in a row (SI, March 12). To hope for another victory, at Whistler Mountain, would have been unreasonable. Certainly Johnson, smart and tough though he may be, would experience a letdown. Certainly the natural talent of some European star would have to rise up and blow the American off the Whistler course, which was steep, fast and rather technical—not Johnson's kind of terrain. No way. Johnson held a tuck even in the-tightest of turns, averaged 68.36 mph (fastest run of the season) and flew across the finish line .32 ahead of Helmut Hoeflehner of Austria. Overall World Cup leader Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland was third.

So a new American legend was almost at hand when the old double-image Mahre legend called it quits. There was a script for the twins' retirement: They were to ski—and, it was hoped, one would win—their last World Cup race in Vail on Wednesday, and then the next day they would reappear in the annual Legends of Skiing event. It was to be loaded with former heroes such as Stein Eriksen, Pepi Stiegler, Gretchen Fraser, Jean Saubert, Billy Kidd, Jimmy Heuga and Jean-Claude Killy, and as usual the racing was considered by almost everyone to be a lighthearted run down memory slope. The Legends is handicapped so the oldest skiers are given a head start out of the gate, and there are modest cash prizes: $500 to the winner of each age group and $2,000 to the winner of the head-to-head final slaloms that produce a Grand Legend of Skiing for each sex.

A sweet fillip to the end of the Mahres' brilliant careers, right? Wrong. A few of the more ancient legends didn't like the idea that the Mahres, both 26, could attain legendhood so quickly. Eriksen, winner of Olympic gold and silver in 1952, said with a disarming grin, "Are they already legends?" When he was asked how long it takes to become an authentic legend, Eriksen, 56, replied, "Fifty-six years."

Whatever the appropriate age, the Mahres weren't allowed to turn legendary at this year's race. And they didn't seem to mind. Phil said, "I wouldn't mind running in the race, but there are some hard feelings among some of the older guys about the money involved. We thought this was just a fun thing, but if they're worried that we would win their money, we'll stay out of it." The twins, who each earned more than $200,000 last year, did act as forerunners for the race. When it was all over, the winning Grand Legends were Fraser, 65, who won a gold medal in the slalom at the St. Moritz Olympics 36 years ago, and the nonpareil charmer Killy, now 40 and seemingly no less lithe and swift than he was when he tripled in gold in 1968.

In the hub-bub of the Mahres' final appearances, many things, both sweet and sour, were said about their life at the top of the ski racing mountain. Steve reiterated the Mahres' desire to be judged as mere mortals: "We want to be remembered as Steve and Phil Mahre—just people. We're no better than the next guy." Phil fired a typically outspoken zinger at U.S. Alpine team director Bill Marolt, whose relationship with the Mahres has been dicey from the moment he took over in 1979: "We never did get along with Marolt, and in recent months we haven't talked at all. He tries to coach on the hill, but he should leave coaching to real coaches." About his longtime rival, Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, Phil was far more gracious: "The one thing I hope now is that Ingemar can win this year's overall World Cup. If Steve or I can't get it, Ingemar should."

There was much casting about among journalists and expert observers to come up with words that might best define the legacy left to U.S. skiing by the Mahres. Hank Tauber, Alpine director from 1974 to '79, probably said it best: "It's like the four-minute mile. Once the barrier is broken, all kinds of people are able to do it. The Mahres proved for the first time that U.S. men can win—and win big—in World Cup ski racing. From now on, more and more American men will be able to do it."

But what of U.S. male skiers who've languished in the giant shadows cast by the Mahres? Well, last week those erstwhile no-names finally came up with their own definitive answer to the question Is There Life After the Mahres? In the slalom at Vail, in which Phil finished tied for third and Steve skied off the course, there were no fewer than six Americans in the top 20, and three of them besides Phil—Mark Tache (9th), John Buxman (11th) and Tiger Shaw (14th)—earned World Cup points by winding up among the first 15. It was the best top 20 finish ever by U.S. men racers. It looks like there may be more American ski legends in the works.


After a fourth at Lake Placid, McKinney hopped the bus to Waterville—and glory.


Cooper (left) won at Placid with a 2:38.38 clocking; Flanders (below) got mad and good in Canada; Nelson braced herself for another season.


The best Phil could do in his last week was third.


Steve helped build the Mahre legacy: Yes, U.S. male racers can win in the World Cup.


Stenmark, the winner of the Vail GS, is Phil's choice for the 1984 overall title.


The retirement party: Steve and family join Phil (holding son) and his brood at Vail.