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The Son Finally Rises
William Oscar Johnson
February 21, 1994
At peace with his father and with himself, Tommy Moe won a gold in the downhill
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February 21, 1994

The Son Finally Rises

At peace with his father and with himself, Tommy Moe won a gold in the downhill

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As Tommy Moe of Girdwood, Alaska, flashed across the finish line at the men's downhill on Sunday, a microscopic .04 of a second faster than the favorite, Kjetil André Aamodt of Norway, America's ski racing fans burst out in a chorus of hallelujahs. Not only had the 23-year-old Moe redeemed his career after years of unfulfilled promise, but he had also brought gold and glory to a tattered U.S. ski team that had recently come under some tough criticism.

This was a triumph that seemed to make everyone happy, including even the Norwegian hosts, who were pleased by the fact that Moe's great-great-grandfather came from Norway, where his surname Möen is very common. Opponents, too, found some solace in Moe's victory. Said U.S. teammate Kyle Rasmussen, "There isn't anyone on the World Cup circuit who resents Tommy winning this race. Everyone likes him." With his elfin smile and his undisguised elation over his victory, Moe captured the hearts of the 30,000-plus spectators who gathered in 5° sunshine at the downhill course in Kvitfjell, 35 miles north of Lillehammer—among them Norway's King Harald V and Queen Sonja, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The First Lady arrived after Moe had completed his run, but she greeted him with congratulations and later mentioned that she had once spent a pleasant college summer working in a cannery in Alaska.

Moe's first win in a big-time ski race was the sublime climax to a saga of love and war between a young man and his father. Tom Sr., 55, a gregarious, craggy-faced builder, was close by young Tommy's side in his first hours of global celebrity in Lillehammer. Accompanied by his third wife, Tyra, 36, an elementary school teacher and the mother of Hudson Thatcher Moe, aged seven months, Tom Sr. had fought his way from Alaska to Norway through a succession of winter storms and closed airports, arriving at the downhill finish area only two minutes before the competition began.

Born and raised in the copper-mining town of Anaconda, Mont., the elder Moe is an inveterate outdoorsman (at one point in his life he was a smoke jumper fighting forest fires) and a powerful skier who worked for a time as a ski patrolman at Big Mountain, a Montana resort. He was also a kayaker of such skill that a particularly dangerous stretch of water in Montana's Swan River was named the Moe Hole after he became the first to negotiate it. Tom Sr. had two boys and a girl with his first wife, but the couple divorced when Tommy, the youngest, was two. The daughter, Tera, went to live with the first Mrs. Moe, and the sons were taken in by their paternal grandmother, Valerie Tomlinson.

Tom Sr. eventually moved to Alaska, where more construction work was available. But before he left Montana, he introduced his youngest child to skiing. Says Tommy, "I first remember snowplowing with him at Big Mountain when I was maybe three, but I probably had been doing it even before then." The boy took quickly to the sport, and by the time he was 13 he held so much promise as a ski racer that Dynastar skis signed him to an endorsement contract.

Tommy reasoned that if he was old enough to have a ski contract at 13, he was also old enough for adult indulgences—such as smoking marijuana and drinking. "I had some tough years as an adolescent," Tommy recalls, "and I got involved in a lot of things. It was just one of those things—an experiment, the wrong crowd. I wasn't always the smartest kid around." In 1984 Tommy was caught smoking pot at a ski race in Helena, and he was banned from competing in the Idaho-Montana region. "When he was kicked out of racing, we called Dynastar first," says Tom Sr. (The company stuck by the young skier and continues to sponsor him.) "They suggested I contact coaches in Alaska. I did. If Tommy hadn't ended up in Alaska, he wouldn't be where he is today. The coaching was a little tougher there, because everything is tougher up there."

Indeed, that toughness has produced four Alaska-based skiers, in addition to Moe, who are currently on the U.S. Olympic team, including downhiller Hilary Lindh, 24, of Juneau, who won the silver at the 1992 Olympics, and another downhiller, Megan Gerety, 22, of Anchorage, who is Tommy's girlfriend.

Tommy moved in with his father and began doing well on the Alaskan ski circuit. When he was 15, he was invited to the U.S. National Alpine Championships at Copper Mountain, Colo. Starting 69th, he slammed down a rutted, chewed-up downhill course and finished sixth. At the time, the U.S. men's ski team was so bereft of talent that the kid his dad still called Little Tommy was immediately dubbed the looming superstar in American ski racing. It was a heavy load for a teenager to carry, and he did not bear it well. Training at a U.S. team camp at Mount Alyeska, outside Anchorage, in the summer of '86, he sneaked into the woods to smoke some pot, and the episode was reported to a coach. He was kicked out of the camp.

Tom Sr. was working a job in Dutch Harbor, a bleak outpost on the Bering Sea in the Aleutian Islands, and he decided to teach Tommy a lesson. He ordered his son to join him there for work. The young skier was on the job at 4 a.m. and labored under the Alaskan sun for 12 to 16 hours at a stretch during the long days of Arctic summer. "I worked his rear end off," says Tom Sr. "And then I asked him if he'd rather be doing this or if he'd rather be skiing with the team in Argentina. That straightened him out."

Young Tommy recalls, "It was mental torture, bad news. It humbled me up pretty fast."

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