Hotdog skiing, which had its vogue in the U.S. during the mid-'70s, began to die out after several hotdoggers suffered paralyzing injuries and sued the ski areas. "This sport is no longer the guy who comes out for the day, has a bottle of wine and decides to throw a flip," says Smalley. "That image is a hole I've been trying to climb out of for 14 years."
The hole nearly swallowed up the U.S. aerialists, who had their insurance coverage yanked back in December and were told at a World Cup event in Lake Placid in January that they couldn't jump again this year. The Americans came to Tignes not knowing whether they would be able to do the inverted aerials that are the core of the competition. Then, three days before the championships, the team received word from the U.S. Ski Association that it was insured through the end of the season. Maria Quintana, a softspoken 19-year-old aerial skier from Steamboat Springs, Colo., had been so upset by the insurance problem that she had written her Congressman.
With all this on her mind, Quintana has been struggling with her concentration and often has been landing one jump perfectly and botching the next. During qualifying heats for the women's finals, she surprised everyone—including her coaches—by moving from the 7�-foot high kicker used by all the top women to the 9�-foot high kicker used by the men. Why had none of the other women tried this? "Awww, they're scared," Quintana said. She also had little use for the women who closed their eyes during the jump. "They're missing a lot," she said.
Quintana had never before been pitched so far into space during a competition, and as a result she overrotated slightly on her first jump in the finals, but she enjoyed every liberating moment of her added airtime. "It's a great feeling when you're going up," she said, "but I like it best when you're at the highest point. It's kind of a weightless feeling. You don't always see everything because it's all going by so quickly and anyway you're upside down, but you feel like you have so much time when you're up there." Quintana was in third place after her first jump, then nailed her second perfectly—a backward double somersault, the first rotation in a full layout, the second in a tuck—to take the gold.
The American dominance of the championships continued when Jan Bucher of Salt Lake City won the women's gold in ballet, an event in which the skier jumps, twirls, slaloms, etc., down a slope to the sound of music. Bucher, 28, has won six World Cup titles in seven years despite the fact that she didn't start skiing until she was 19. "I couldn't even get off the chair lift," she says, recalling her very first day on the slopes. "They had to carry me off." Now Bucher and her sport are both standing on their own two feet. Even when their feet are upside down.