If there is a Yankee Stadium of skiing, it is the Alp country of Austria. Among its jagged peaks and steeply rolling mountain meadows, Tyroleans and Arlbergers grow up with skis on their feet practically from babyhood, and here they have ruled international competitive skiing for seven years, methodically turning out champions by the barrelful. And it is here, at Bad Gastein, that the world Alpine championships of the F�deration Internationale de Ski will start this weekend.
These championships are the pinnacle of every skier's aspirations. There are four men's titles at stake: the slalom, giant slalom, downhill and—most glittering of all—the combined title for the best score in the three races. In the last world championships (at the Olympics) the Austrians took six out of nine medals and the combined championship. And until a couple of weeks ago, the Austrians saw no reason for worry about this year's competition. Now, they have suddenly found themselves looking at an American skier who might do them all in. That American is Bud Werner (above) from Steamboat Springs, Colo.
The Austrians had started out the season in fine style. Toni Sailer and Anderl Molterer (see opposite page) between them took four of the five important races that traditionally precede a world championship at Wengen, Switzerland and Kitzb�hel, Austria. Another Austrian, Josl Rieder, took the fifth. But at Wengen, Werner skied the steadiest of them all and upset Sailer, the current world champion, for the combined title. The Austrians were stunned. It was the first time an American had taken a major European combined prize, and Sailer has been the darling of the ski world ever since his triple victory at the last Olympics. The shocked Vienna Bild Telegraf headlined a front-page story: WERNER BEATS OUR SKI ACES.
A week later on the Kitzb�hel runs, where Austrian racers are weaned, Werner ran third behind two Austrians in the giant slalom and fourth behind three other Austrians in the downhill. The Austrians knew the courses blindfolded while Werner knew them hardly at all. Although Werner fell in the slalom, it was more obvious than ever to the Austrians that this American was terribly dangerous.
A skiing phenomenon
Werner was no surprise to his teammates. They have known for years that he is a skiing phenomenon. No skier in the world has Werner's willingness to point his skis straight down any hill. Even in the relatively open downhill race, which has so few control gates that a straight line is usually the most successful, the best racers check their speed with a judicious half-turn now and then. "The trouble with Bud," said his teammate Tom Corcoran, ranked No. 2 among U.S. men, "used to be that he just didn't believe in checking."
The result was that until this year Werner would usually mix with disaster somewhere on the way down in his races and go spinning out of the course in a cloud of snow. To Werner, the 60 to 75 gates which make the modern slalom course an exercise in spineswiveling acrobatics seemed to represent an irritating set of obstacles to getting down the hill as fast as possible. In fact, he usually managed to take some of the gates down wth him.
Werner almost always got into trouble, possibly because he counted on his catlike sense of balance to get him out of it. In the U.S. national downhill last year he got going too fast and went sailing feet first into the sky. Four fifths of a second later he came crashing to the ground, skis first, having managed to straighten himself out in mid-air. He then went bounding down the course without losing his speed, unperturbed and impatient to get to the bottom. " Werner's the only man who thinks he can gain three seconds in a fall," said one of his coaches dourly.
Werner, happily for American hopes, has curbed his impetuosity this year and, whatever happens, he will certainly take his place beside Andrea Mead, the double gold medal winner of the 1952 Olympics, as a giant in international skiing.
But giants are few and far between. Other than Werner, the American skiers—boys and girls—are just excellent racers. And that is not enough. The handicaps against which they race include lack of racing experience in Europe (American skiers go to Europe only once in two years) and lack of direction while skiing in the U.S. The team is picked by a point system in the winter preceding the championships—before they even have a coach. A new coach is appointed for every championship and meets his team as such only when they all get aboard the plane for Europe. He has no idea what shape his skiers are in because there is no preseason training. And because they lack the money, the U.S. team gets to Europe so late it has to train doggedly right up to the first prechampionship races.