There was about as much snow in the normal American icebox last week as there was on any mountain in Europe. Never in modern ski racing had conditions been so poor. The situation was especially infuriating for the world's best Alpine racers, who went from one bare crag to another in search of slopes on which to sharpen their skills for the coming Olympics in Innsbruck. In more than a month of serious training they found a minimum.
However, in a few shady, high-altitude ravines in France, Germany and Switzerland sheets of ice and mud-streaked snow permitted half a dozen foreshortened slalom races and giant slaloms. It was impossible to lay out any decent courses for the longer downhill events, so none were held anywhere, for either men or women. But happily for the U.S., there was enough competition for the spirited American team, led by a cute Oregon State coed named Jean Saubert, to gain an immense amount of respect from European rivals.
A great deal of that respect was directed toward the confident Miss Saubert, whose sparkling blue eyes, pink cheeks, light-brown bangs and friendly personality have gained almost as much admiring attention in the past month as have her aggressive attacks on the slalom gates. This was no small achievement, since her skiing record has definitely established her as the girl to beat at Innsbruck in the giant slalom and possibly the slalom as well.
At Val d'Is�re she won the giant slalom and ran a close second to little Annie Famose of France in the slalom. At Oberstaufen, Germany she won the first of two slaloms and finished third behind the Goitschel sisters, Marielle and Christine, of France in the second one. Then, this past week, at Grindelwald, Switzerland, she met the biggest test to date. There to see her perform were a noisy array of European newsmen and a few brave tourists who were capable of skiing or hiking on a precious cradle of rapidly disappearing snow below the shoulder of the Eiger mountain.
The slalom course was tight and icy, with 49 gates on the first run and 52 on the second. The first time down, Jean seemed to have a brilliant run going until midway when she caught an edge coming out of a turn. But she recovered with astonishing speed, to finish in 61.08, five seconds behind Marielle Goitschel, the leader, and in ninth place.
"I just wasn't concentrating," said Jean at lunch between runs. "I'm going to fire down this time."
She did precisely that. On an even more difficult course, whose gates were set so tightly that half of the 91 entries failed to finish or were disqualified, Jean was a plunging blur. Her time was 51.75, three seconds faster than anyone and almost 10 seconds faster than her first race. Unofficially it placed her second to the steady Marielle Goitschel, but Jean knew it would not count.
"I missed a gate," she sighed, smiling. "I just went past it. I knew it, but I went ahead anyhow." Indeed she had missed a gate, and she was disqualified for it. But she was pleased with her performance, knowing, as did everyone else, that by taking the simple gate she would not have lost more than a fraction of a second. It was a daring, beautiful run.
Next day, there was scarcely room for the giant slalom. The course was charted from the very foot of the rocky north wall of the Eiger, and it ended only a few feet from a cog railway track. By this time Alpine Coach Bob Beattie and the American men had arrived from Hindelang, Germany (assistant coaches Don Henderson and Marvin Melville had been with the girls), and Beattie, as is his custom, was at the start, having last-minute words with each of his entries before they shoved downward. "We've got to be mentally tough—like a football team," said ex-football coach Beattie. "Each one of us has to think win, win, win in every race. We go all out, making our turns quickly and driving faster. Every day we've worked on our technique of going into our turns quicker and driving hard."
Beattie spoke such words to Jean Saubert up until the last instant before she flashed away in the giant slalom. She made her time early, in knifing fashion, on the icy upper slopes and took the last three gates almost lunging, brushing the gateposts, leaping under the banner at the finish. Her time: 1.37:38, two seconds faster than anyone, a smashing four seconds faster than Marielle Goitschel who, at least in Jean's mind, looms as her strongest opponent in the slalom races at the Olympics.