Hilary Lindh has been reviewing trigonometry, getting ready for her next semester of math at the University of Utah, something she should be getting around to, oh, any year now. She has already pulled an A in calculus, but that was nearly a decade ago at Oregon, and her grasp of logarithms now is locked away in that recess of the mind where most book learning dwells. Lindh is 27, and she knows she will get around to finishing college, just as she will get to all the hiking, camping and free skiing on her to-do list. But last year, when she had to choose between trig calculations or hurtling down rock-candy slopes at 75 mph, Lindh strapped on her skis and took the easy way out.
For now she is sticking to the simple arithmetic of a downhill racer, scanning scoreboards at the bottoms of mountains for almost imperceptible differences. She lives by eyeblinks. Five years to the day after finishing .06 of a second from an Olympic gold medal in the Albertville Games, where she won the silver, Lindh was exactly that much faster than runner-up Heidi Zurbriggen of Switzerland at the world-championship downhill last Saturday in Sestriere, Italy. "You can hardly conceive of anything that takes that long—six one-hundredths," Lindh said. "You think about how such a little time can make such a big difference in your life."
The second consecutive world-championship downhill victory by an American—Picabo Street won in 1996 at Sierra Nevada, Spain—vindicated Lindh's decision to remain the eternal sophomore and burnished the U.S. team's reputation for rising to the occasion at big events, a reputation that had been under assault at the worlds. After arriving in Sestriere, Lindh spent a week watching American skiers who could have been timed with sundials. "I know we can ski better than that," she said. "Every single person can ski better than they did."
Before Saturday, this included Lindh. She had begun the season by placing 32nd in Lake Louise, Alberta, on a course where she had won one of her three World Cup downhills. She was miserable about her dismal showing. Also, the chronically bulging disks in her back were causing terrible pain; her coach, Ernst Hager, had resigned; her longtime ski technician, Mike Desantis, had taken another job, leaving her to travel with an unfamiliar ski-company rep who would help with the waxing and sharpening of her skis. She had switched from her old boots to the model that German ace Katja Seizinger was wearing. For a woman whose career had been marked by constancy, Lindh was a wreck. The following week, in Vail, she returned to her old boots, but the best she could do was 23rd place.
"I thought last year, after winning a [bronze] medal at the worlds, that I could quit and feel good about it, but it didn't work out that way," says Lindh, who decided to continue skiing after she missed the '96 World Cup final with a sprained ankle and didn't want to limp away from the sport. "Considering how this season started, sometimes all that kept me going was that this [world championships] could be it."
Before Lindh's victory, no U.S. skier had made it to a podium all season. A knee injury in early December wiped out the season for Street, the two-time World Cup downhill champion. Then in January, Olympic downhill champ Tommy Moe sliced a tendon in his right thumb while serving as a celebrity bartender at a pub in Kitzbühel, Austria. "I made it down [the Kitzbühel course] five times at 90 miles an hour," Moe said last week from Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he is recuperating. "But I couldn't make it out of the bar."
The injury to Street was the most devastating to U.S. hopes on the circuit, but it had a liberating effect on Lindh. She has long played the unassuming Mary Ann to Street's more glamorous Ginger, opposites thrown together on a Gilligan's Island of a team and forced to make do. "It's a lot easier to concentrate on myself when there's not someone else there who's kind of grabbing all the attention," Lindh said after Saturday's victory. "That's something I haven't really overcome the last few years. I hadn't been able to put her out of sight, out of mind, and not worry about what she was doing."
Since the World Cup circuit moved to Europe in January, Lindh has shown marked improvement, finishing ninth, 17th (in a super-giant slalom) and then fourth in the final preworlds downhill, in Laax, Switzerland. Three days before Saturday's downhill she finished second to Seizinger in the final training run at Sestriere.
"She terrorized the Europeans with that run," said Paul Major, U.S. Skiing's vice president of athletics. "You could see it in their eyes. Just when they think they have us beat, just when they think we're not a factor—and having seen what we've done this season, we weren't a factor—we show up."
Before the downhill, two days of snow and blustery winds had spread four inches of fresh powder on the Italian Alps, changing conditions on the Kandahar Banchetta course and causing organizers to move the race up 2½ hours, to 10:30 a.m. Just before 11, a minute before Lindh was to burst out of the gate, the sun broke through. At least I'll have a good look at the track, Lindh thought.