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Cutting the Mustard

Jan Bucher and ballet skiing, a demonstration event, have been battling their hot-dog reputations for a long time

It's a sunny mid-november afternoon, and Jan Bucher, freestyle ballet skier extraordinaire, is practicing gut flips on the slopes at Copper Mountain. Colo. The gut flip, a maneuver in which the skier plants her pole tips in the snow and the other ends against her abdomen and then launches herself into a forward full flip, requires intense concentration, so Bucher, whose name is frequently butchered (it's pronounced BOO-her). doesn't notice the menacing figure gliding toward her. Suddenly she looks up and sees someone straight out of Star Wars—it's Darth Vader. dressed all in black, cape and helmet included. Darth waves his Day-Glo wand, taps her with it and pronounces sonorously. "Obi-Wan Kenobi gave you the power to do this well." Then he skis on. Bucher laughs. She has run into a lot of wackadoos since she took up freestyle. At least this one didn't insult her.

Besides, Bucher doesn't need a bogus Darth to put the Force on her side; it seems to have been with her almost from the moment she first snapped on skis 10 years ago. Bucher, 30, has been the women's World Cup champion ballet skier seven times and the U.S. champion three times. And she's the odds-on favorite to win a gold medal at Calgary, where freestyle skiing (which, besides ballet, includes competition in aerial and mogul skiing) will make its debut as a demonstration sport.

Freestyle ballet is a lot like figure skating and a bit like Alpine skiing—though shorter skis and longer, stronger poles are used. The skier intersperses balletic dance steps with jumps, spins and flips in a two-minute-and-15-second routine performed to music on a 282-yard-long stretch of slope, and a panel of seven judges awards scores as high as 10 for technical difficulty, choreography and overall performance. Ballet skiers hope TV coverage from Calgary will make the world familiar with such maneuvers as the Rudy, the Post Toastie, the thumper and, yes, the Bucher spin.

Bucher and freestyle skiing have come a long way in the last decade. In the mid-1970s, she was a figure skater who had reached the limits in her sport, and freestyle skiing was a professional event caught in a downhill slide. It had had its heyday in the early '70s, when commercial sponsors coughed up big bucks to put the aerialists—those wild and crazy people who performed without apparent regard for life or limb—on the tube. At that point there were few guidelines and no safety rules for freestyle competitions, and the antics of these so-called hotdoggers gave the sport a bad name. The mustard began to fly after a few aerialists ended up in wheelchairs. In 1977, U.S. insurance companies decided not to issue policies to ski areas that held freestyle contests, and as a result inverted aerials—backflips on skis done off small, steep ramps—were banned. Two years later freestyle went amateur and came under the umbrella of the Fèdèration Internationale de Ski, the governing body for competitive skiing. Safety rules were written to minimize the danger of inverted aerials, and regular international competition was organized. Freestyle had begun its long climb to respectability.

While freestyle was growing up, so was Bucher. A native of Salt Lake City, she started her athletic career at the age of 10—on figure skates. "I went to a skating party with some friends," she says, "and I just loved it. I saw these girls out there doing spins, and I decided right then I wanted to be a skater." The children of Bea and John Bucher are a hardworking, determined lot with a penchant for the entertainment world. Jan's sister Gerrie, now semiretired and living in Rome, was a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, and her sister Jyll is an opera singer (brother John is a criminal lawyer), so when Bea put Jan in skating classes it was no surprise that the youngest of the Bucher girls "was hooked right away."

A year later she was competing. "By 15 or 16, I was pretty good, but I wasn't Debi Thomas," says Bucher. "Then I started getting injuries." She suffered from a back ailment, and when she was 17 she fell while running to meet a friend. Result: a shattered bone and badly torn ligaments in her right ankle. An operation patched the ankle back together, but, says Bucher, "as for serious skating, it was bye-bye after that."

This didn't keep her off the ice, mind you, it just slowed her down. One day when she was at the Salt Palace ice rink she struck up a conversation with a friendly bunch of people who had been watching her skate. They were ballet skiers looking for some new ideas for their routines. "I started teaching them some skating moves," says Bucher. One thing led to another, and before you could say triple toe loop, the skiers suggested that Bucher join them on the slopes. They would teach her their sport. "You'd be great at it," one of them said prophetically.

"So I snuck up there," says Bucher. "I had spent so much time and money learning to skate that I was worried if my mom found out I'd been skiing, she'd kill me."

It was the start of her brilliant career. "They took me up on the chair lift," says Bucher, "and I couldn't get off the damned thing. They had to stop the lift, and then I fell off. I couldn't do much of anything; I couldn't even snowplow. But the one thing I could do was spin." She was 20 and attending the University of Utah when she began this secret life. Every weekend she would tell her mother she was going skating or to the library. Then she would drive to nearby ski areas for regional competitions.

"The freestylers paid for my rental equipment," says Bucher, "because I was helping them, too. Things the skiers had been working on for years, I could do really quick, because it was the same kind of stuff I'd been doing for almost all my life on skates. The big difference was now I had these long edges, where before I had teeny ones. It was much more stable."

By the end of that first season she had qualified for the national ballet championships—the insurance companies had never put a damper on ballet. She won. When a story on her victory appeared in the newspaper, her parents found out what she had been up to. As expected, they were upset, but by then Bucher knew her future lay on the slopes, not on the rink. So she combined the two sports by teaching skating to earn money to pay for her skiing.

After the nationals Bucher decided she was ready to try out for the U.S. team. She entered a competition at Silver Star, British Columbia, won it, was named to the team and left to compete in Europe, where she had never been. She soon discovered that a freestyler led a hand-to-mouth existence. She became a winner almost at once, but collected a measly $500 for each first-place finish. She earned just enough during the season to pay expenses and stay in training. "That first year, I think I went to every World Cup competition," she says. "That was when I first heard people yell, 'Doggie, doggie!' at me. I was shocked, because I came from skating, where you're treated with respect. To hear this, to be degraded all the time, really hurt."

While freestylers had met with some resistance in Europe and Canada, it was in the U.S. that the insults really flew. "It got so I didn't want to train alone because of what people might say to me," says Bucher. "The other freestylers felt the same way. But I'll tell you, I think it's what's made some of us so strong. We have something to prove."

It didn't take Bucher long to prove she was a champion; she won the first of her seven World Cup titles in 1979. But a few years—and a few titles—later she was still fighting the old prejudices. One day at Mount Hood, Ore., Bucher was practicing her ballet routine when a guy on the chair lift started throwing dog biscuits at her and yelling. "Hey, here doggie, doggie! Here's a bone!" It bothered her. but Bucher had mellowed, so she was more amazed than annoyed. "He'd gone to an awful lot of trouble." she says. "I couldn't believe he brought those Milk-Bones all that way up the mountain just for me."

Staying cool on the slopes made her a hot competitor, and she won every World Cup ballet title from 1979 through '84. But in '85 she changed choreographers, which was a mistake. She also overtrained and was plagued with injuries. She had operations for severe tendinitis in her right hand and for torn cartilage in her left knee. On top of this, the old ache in her back kicked up. She finished second in the World Cup standings to Christine Rossi of France.

The next year she went back to her old choreographer and trained harder than ever—though more intelligently. "Every time I've ever had an injury I've pushed even harder and stronger," she says. It paid off, and she won the championship again. Last winter it took a tiebreaker to keep Bucher from collecting her eighth World Cup crown. Bucher and Rossi each had four victories during the season, but the title went to Rossi because she had three second places while Bucher had two seconds and a third. At least Bucher could console herself with a new title: U.S. Freestyle Skier of the Year.

But the loss of the World Cup title still bothers her. "I was doing so well in practice," she says, "but I was tight in competition. I was holding back. I was never happy or satisfied with how skied." So she launched herself on a new training program, pumping iron to build her upper-body strength and running distance and sprints for stamina. "Now I feel positive and confident about this season." she says. "I was fighting myself all last year, not the judges and not the competition. My biggest competition is myself, and I'm going to win."

No less an authority than Peter Judge, the 1983 World Cup men's combined champion and the coach of the Canadian freestyle team, agrees with Bucher. "I think Jan's chances for gold in Calgary are very good." he says. "There's no doubt that she has the talent and ability. She's definitely skiing at that level right now." Of course. Judge's judgment isn't entirely objective. He's Bucher's husband. "She's my wife and I want to see her do well at the Olympics." says Judge, "so of course I'm going to cheer for her. But I'm going to cheer for my athletes, too."

Judge and Bucher met in late 1978, during the first season she competed internationally. Though they claim it was love at first sight, a long courtship followed; they married in 1985. Because of their varying commitments, he is now based in Ottawa, she in Salt Lake City. They rendezvous on ski slopes around the world and have lots of healthy long-distance fights. "Our phone bills are incredible," says Bucher. "They've been as high as $1,800 a month."

Even by long distance. Judge is a supportive spouse. "I've always wanted her to compete as long as she enjoyed it," he says, "regardless of external pressures being put on her. Outside pressures limit the performance of the athlete."

At least Bucher and Judge can count on being in Calgary together, and that's one pressure situation they look forward to. "Somebody asked me how I was going to feel at the Opening Ceremonies," says Bucher, the figure skater turned freestyle skier. "I said, 'I'm going to be looking for Debi Thomas and Brian Orser—all the people I've looked up to for years."

And she's not going to be intimidated by any bozos throwing Milk-Bones and insults. "For once, I'm going to be performing in front of everybody, and on TV, not just for the people who think they know skiing," she says. "Everybody's going to see what it is freestylers do, and each person can then decide whether he hates the sport or likes it."