It was hailed as " America's Opening" because for the first time in the 20-year history of the World Cup Alpine ski racing circuit, a season was to begin in the U.S. instead of in Europe. Mother Nature didn't cooperate much; there was more tumbleweed than snow on the slopes above Park City, Utah, but the miracle of snow-making technology laid down a two-foot-deep carpet, long enough to hold two World Cup races.
Both events brought a bit of American hope to brighten America's Opening. The U.S. women's team showed more than a glimmer of its old dazzle after its sad season last year. At Park City, Tamara McKinney, not yet 25 after eight full World Cup seasons (she won the overall championship in 1983), came in a strong second in the slalom on Sunday, her best World Cup finish since March 1985. The day before, in the giant slalom, she had led the U.S. team with a respectable seventh-place finish. "I had a lot to prove to myself and others," she said. "Even though I felt good about training this summer, I wasn't sure I would get the old feeling back come race time."
Though there were falls and blowouts aplenty, the other U.S. skiers also got that old feeling back, at least for a moment or two: In the GS, Debbie Armstrong, 23, the gold medalist at Sarajevo, finished 12th, and three other U.S. women—four-year veteran Eva Twardokens and two bright newcomers, Kristi Terzian, 19, of the C team, and Beth Madsen, 22, of the B team—finished in the top 25.
The winners of the two Park City races were relative unknowns. West Germany's Michaela Gerg, 21, a dainty, blue-eyed charmer from Lenggries, in Bavaria, won the GS. "It is good to win the first race of the year," said the cool Gerg, whose victory was only the second of her World Cup career, "because you can see that you have trained very well." Yes, indeed. On Sunday, McKinney was beaten by .47 of a second in the slalom by Corinne Schmidhauser, 22, of Ostermundigen, Switzerland, who also had won only once before on the World Cup circuit.
Though the American race results were not resounding triumphs, they did indicate that one of the blackest periods in U.S. women's ski racing may now be over. The 1985-86 season was a disaster bordering on a catastrophe, the result of a combination of bad luck on the race courses and bad vibes between coaches and racers.
It began in early January, when Armstrong crashed during downhill training in Badgastein, Austria, and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. She was out for the year. Just 10 days later Diann Roffe, 19, the nimble little racer who won the GS at the worlds in Bormio, Italy, in 1985, hit a pole during a GS race in West Germany and slashed her left knee so badly that she, too, was out for almost the entire season.
That left McKinney as the only proven winner on the U.S. team. This was heavy pressure in itself. Even worse was the tough, almost punitive atmosphere that the coaching staff had created around the team. The head coach, Brad Ghent, was a drill-sergeant type who believed in driving his team members through fierce physical conditioning regimens—even after the racing season was underway. McKinney is a delicate soul, easily bruised and quick to notice slights. Her response to the hardfisted ways of Ghent & Co. was to fall into a blue funk that led her into her worst slump ever. Her best finish all season was fifth in a slalom in Czechoslovakia, her worst a 67th at Waterville Valley, N.H.—a place where she had won an amazing five World Cup races over the years. The other U.S. women seemed to sink into McKinney's abyss. The only American to win a race all season was Pam Fletcher, 23, who grabbed the downhill in Vail in March. The next day Fletcher hooked a tip on a Super-G course at Vail and injured her right ankle so badly she was unable to ski until early summer.
Thus the women's worst season in years came to an end. The demoralized McKinney returned to her family home in Lexington, Ky., ready to quit. "I had no confidence," she says. "I had decided to retire. Then I went running in the hills at home to get rid of the extra debris that was floating around in my head. After a couple of months I realized that I still liked to ski. I decided to stay on."
By that time Harald Schoenhaar, the Alpine program director, came to grips with the mess. "Did I have a headache!" says Schoenhaar. "It was not the finest moment of my life when I realized I had to part ways with six of eight coaches on the women's team. It meant a completely new staff. Who can be sure it works?"
Schoenhaar signed up Chip Woods, 39, as head coach. Woods, a well-liked member of the women's staff from 1980 through 1984, left his job as headmaster of Glacier Creek Academy in Girdwood, Alaska, a school specializing in ski racing, to join the team. By June he and Schoenhaar had transformed the team's oppressive atmosphere into something that was positively sunny by comparison. "My main goal was to let the kids be happy and have fun," said Woods. "I wanted them to enjoy the sport, not look at it as hard work or punishment. I believe in the old adage, 'A pat on the back is better than a kick in the butt.' "