A simple and painful truth about Alpine ski racing is that you cannot win while bumpety-bumping downhill on the seat of your pants or the bridge of your nose. Another is that it takes some doing to outski the mountain-bred men and women of the Austrian and French teams even when you keep tail and teakettle in their customary positions. Last week, on the glistening white slopes above Vail, Colo., U.S. skiers fell nearly as fast as the snow flurries and, as a result, the first American International team races were another sobering exhibition of winning Alpine technique by the cocky Austrians and the mischievous French.
While the Austrians were more devastating than ever in the downhill, and the French were impressive in the other events, the Americans failed to escape from their familiar world of disaster and discontent. In the long months since the Winter Olympics it seems that nothing has really changed on the mountains except, possibly, that stretch pants are tighter. All but shut out of the top places on the first two days of Vail's meet—the biggest anywhere this winter—America seized its one moment of real triumph when Olympic Medalist Jean Saubert, reportedly out of condition, tied for first in the giant slalom.
Ultimately, the Austrians won the men's championship, the French captured the separate competition for women, and the U.S. tottered in third and last on both fronts.
While the meet did little to improve the confidence of the American racers, the international team-race format of U.S. Coach Bob Beattie proved to be interesting enough to lure carloads of fans and lift lines of skiers from all over Colorado, and no doubt assure its continuation as an annual event that will be rotated between western and eastern resorts.
It was probably unfair to expect wonders from the U.S. ace, Billy Kidd, who was carrying the heaviest burden of responsibility in the American camp. Still, Billy himself would have been the last to envision the troubles that befell him.
After having the second-fastest time in the nonstop practice run on the two-mile downhill course the day before the meet began, Kidd, who had won eight straight races on home snow, ran a mysteriously dismal downhill. Tense and unaccustomed to the role of being a downhill favorite—heretofore he has been a slalom specialist—he finished 12th in the field of 18. He was crushed and embarrassed, but equal to the occasion. "I skied like Toralf Engan," said Billy, managing a wintry smile. Toralf Engan is a ski jumper.
But if Kidd's downhill performance was a disappointment in the face of the hard fact that Austria, led by a new hero named Heini Messner, had gaudily swept five out of the first six places, it was nothing when compared to the slalom race the next day.
The slalom was the one event in which Beattie's crisis-to-crisis troops felt confident. Kidd, after all, had been second in the Olympics, and Jimmy Heuga had been third. Not only that, but Kidd's workouts at Vail during the week had been so spectacular that even the Europeans had paused to watch.
In the first run of the slalom Kidd was well worth watching. He spun bareheaded down the steep course in the second-fastest time, and was only four-hundredths of a second behind the leader, Karl Schranz, Austria's foremost racer. When Heuga later ripped off the sixth-best time, the Americans felt they belonged on the same mountain with the powerful visitors.
Then came the second run. Heuga started first and had a good chance, but he was a bit too edgy at the top of the course and eventually wound up third. He later admitted that he had "felt slow." Although France's Jean-Claude Killy, Europe's most consistent star during the 1965 season, carved out a beautiful run and gained the lead, the race was still Kidd's to win or lose from the last starting position.