By the end of that first season she had qualified for the national ballet championships—the insurance companies had never put a damper on ballet. She won. When a story on her victory appeared in the newspaper, her parents found out what she had been up to. As expected, they were upset, but by then Bucher knew her future lay on the slopes, not on the rink. So she combined the two sports by teaching skating to earn money to pay for her skiing.
After the nationals Bucher decided she was ready to try out for the U.S. team. She entered a competition at Silver Star, British Columbia, won it, was named to the team and left to compete in Europe, where she had never been. She soon discovered that a freestyler led a hand-to-mouth existence. She became a winner almost at once, but collected a measly $500 for each first-place finish. She earned just enough during the season to pay expenses and stay in training. "That first year, I think I went to every World Cup competition," she says. "That was when I first heard people yell, 'Doggie, doggie!' at me. I was shocked, because I came from skating, where you're treated with respect. To hear this, to be degraded all the time, really hurt."
While freestylers had met with some resistance in Europe and Canada, it was in the U.S. that the insults really flew. "It got so I didn't want to train alone because of what people might say to me," says Bucher. "The other freestylers felt the same way. But I'll tell you, I think it's what's made some of us so strong. We have something to prove."
It didn't take Bucher long to prove she was a champion; she won the first of her seven World Cup titles in 1979. But a few years—and a few titles—later she was still fighting the old prejudices. One day at Mount Hood, Ore., Bucher was practicing her ballet routine when a guy on the chair lift started throwing dog biscuits at her and yelling. "Hey, here doggie, doggie! Here's a bone!" It bothered her. but Bucher had mellowed, so she was more amazed than annoyed. "He'd gone to an awful lot of trouble." she says. "I couldn't believe he brought those Milk-Bones all that way up the mountain just for me."
Staying cool on the slopes made her a hot competitor, and she won every World Cup ballet title from 1979 through '84. But in '85 she changed choreographers, which was a mistake. She also overtrained and was plagued with injuries. She had operations for severe tendinitis in her right hand and for torn cartilage in her left knee. On top of this, the old ache in her back kicked up. She finished second in the World Cup standings to Christine Rossi of France.
The next year she went back to her old choreographer and trained harder than ever—though more intelligently. "Every time I've ever had an injury I've pushed even harder and stronger," she says. It paid off, and she won the championship again. Last winter it took a tiebreaker to keep Bucher from collecting her eighth World Cup crown. Bucher and Rossi each had four victories during the season, but the title went to Rossi because she had three second places while Bucher had two seconds and a third. At least Bucher could console herself with a new title: U.S. Freestyle Skier of the Year.
But the loss of the World Cup title still bothers her. "I was doing so well in practice," she says, "but I was tight in competition. I was holding back. I was never happy or satisfied with how skied." So she launched herself on a new training program, pumping iron to build her upper-body strength and running distance and sprints for stamina. "Now I feel positive and confident about this season." she says. "I was fighting myself all last year, not the judges and not the competition. My biggest competition is myself, and I'm going to win."
No less an authority than Peter Judge, the 1983 World Cup men's combined champion and the coach of the Canadian freestyle team, agrees with Bucher. "I think Jan's chances for gold in Calgary are very good." he says. "There's no doubt that she has the talent and ability. She's definitely skiing at that level right now." Of course. Judge's judgment isn't entirely objective. He's Bucher's husband. "She's my wife and I want to see her do well at the Olympics." says Judge, "so of course I'm going to cheer for her. But I'm going to cheer for my athletes, too."
Judge and Bucher met in late 1978, during the first season she competed internationally. Though they claim it was love at first sight, a long courtship followed; they married in 1985. Because of their varying commitments, he is now based in Ottawa, she in Salt Lake City. They rendezvous on ski slopes around the world and have lots of healthy long-distance fights. "Our phone bills are incredible," says Bucher. "They've been as high as $1,800 a month."
Even by long distance. Judge is a supportive spouse. "I've always wanted her to compete as long as she enjoyed it," he says, "regardless of external pressures being put on her. Outside pressures limit the performance of the athlete."