SI Vault
William Rademaekers
February 05, 1962
As they head for the world championships in Chamonix, the French skiers are gamely trying to prove that they are still kings of the downhill
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February 05, 1962

A Slippery, Tricky Road To Glory

As they head for the world championships in Chamonix, the French skiers are gamely trying to prove that they are still kings of the downhill

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The day before the Hahnenkamm downhill race in Kitzb�hel, Austria, Adrien Duvillard, a leading member of the French team, was blazing down the mountain on a trial run when suddenly he rose from his crouched "egg position" and skied the final 750 yards straight up, laughing and waving his arms in pure joy. The course was hard and fast, just the way the French like it. While skiers from other countries struggled for balance, the rest of the French team finished its trial runs with ease, posted the best four times and then rushed off to a tea dance where they did the twist nonstop for several hours.

If the joy that comes with speed were all that mattered, the French would be sure favorites to sweep the downhill title at the world ski championships in Chamonix, France this month. But joy doesn't count for much, and on any downhill course it takes little more than a sudden change in the weather to ruin a good man's chances. Europe's slopes have been cursed with mild weather this winter, and several tune-up races, including the famed Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen, Switzerland, have been canceled. It was properly cold when the French team made its impressive trial runs at the Hahnenkamm, but that night it turned warm and for the actual competition the next morning the course was slush. Duvillard, so fast in his trial run the day before, started second and lumbered down the mountain like an elephant. At the bottom he yanked off his skis and tried to get word to his teammates that they were using the wrong wax. But the other top French skiers, Guy P�rillat and L�o Lacroix, had already gone off. The race was won by an outsider, Willi Forrer of Switzerland, whose 180 pounds were effective on the slow course. If the course in Chamonix is similarly slow, the downhill will turn into a guessing game—a wax race. If it is fast (and the French "groundkeepers" will try to make sure it is) the French should win, although whatever the condition of the course they will be pressed by Austrians like Karl Schranz, who won the downhill in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy last week on a fast track.

In Chamonix the Austrians should dominate the slalom, although in tune-up races, the warm weather has again acted as a leveler. The Lauberhorn slalom was run on 600 pounds of snow cement—"a race to see who could ski best on rock and grass," said America's Buddy Werner. The Austrians had won the Lauberhorn slalom for six straight years, but on "rock and grass" they failed. The race was won by Switzerland's Adolf Mathis, a skier barely known outside his own family.

Following the slushy downhill, the weather turned cold again for the Hahnenkamm slalom, and it seemed certain that one of the Austrians would win. Austria's Gerhard Nenning led in the first run, with teammates Pepi Stiegler, Hias Leitner and Martin Burger third, fifth and sixth. Unnoticed in eighth place was a member of the American team, Chuck Ferries, a 22-year-old junior at the University of Denver.

Ferries was the third man through the gates of the second course and he took them gracefully. His time was 69.7 for a total of 146.9, but it meant little until the leaders had raced. P�rillat gave him a scare by coming from far back to finish with 147.6. The Frenchman skied over to Ferries, patted him on the shoulder and said, "You got it made, Chuck." Ferries smiled but looked anxiously uphill. Austria's Stiegler came down, slower. So did Leitner and Burger. Finally just one man remained, Nenning. A loudspeaker droned: "Nenning will need 73.3 to beat the American Chuck Ferries." Maneuvering cautiously through the gates, Nenning hit the finish at 73.6, a loser.

It was a grand occasion for Ferries and the U.S. team—the first major European title to go to an American since Buddy Werner won the Hahnenkamm downhill in 1959. Last week Ferries won another title, the slalom in Cortina, but even so the odds will be against him in Chamonix. His victories prove he can ski with the big boys, but there are a good number of big boys. For all his promise, he is a lone American against at least four good Austrians and several Frenchmen. Because of their numerical strength, if nothing else, Austria and France have the best chance in the slalom in Chamonix.

In the downhill, too, America's best man, Buddy Werner, is bucking a strong European gang and to win will need some luck that, in his case, seems long overdue. The Austrians have nicknamed Werner Pechvogel, or hard luck kid. He fell in the 1958 FIS downhill when he was within sight of the finish line and a possible victory over Toni Sailer. He broke his leg training in Aspen just before the 1960 winter Olympics. This year he won a giant slalom in Courchevel, France, but in most of the other races he has fallen. This is Werner's way, desperate, incautious. "Either Buddy is over the finish line a full two seconds faster than anyone else or he is lying out there somewhere on the track," says Chuck Ferries.

The American girls have a better chance than the men of winning a medal in Chamonix. Joan Hannah (see cover) finished second in the giant slalom in Courchevel, Linda Meyers won the giant slalom and took third in the slalom in Grindelwald, Switzerland. Barbara Ferries, Chuck's 17-year-old sister, has placed high in several races and may improve in Chamonix. But like the U.S. men, the girls are outnumbered. There are at least 20 swift European girls, among the best of them Traudl Hecher and Erika Netzer of Austria, Heidi Biebl of West Germany and Pia Riva of Italy.

Even if the American girls win nothing in Chamonix, their trip to Europe will be a success. The Austrians have already conceded that the American girls, winning or losing, make a fine impression on the slopes, and an equally fine one at 5 o'clock tea. In France, as the following pages reveal, that's important.