The slopes sparkled with all sorts of new heroes and heroines as fresh talent kept coming down the jagged trails of northern Italy. There were a couple of relative strangers, from Switzerland and, of all places, Australia. There was a mini-teen-age rebel from Canada. But when the world championship of Alpine ski racing was all over, there stood a couple of old men we have long known. And there stood America—finally—with something gold to show for the season.
It was a time, mainly, for Billy Kidd and Karl Schranz, a couple of household names where speeding down mountains is concerned. It was Kidd and Schranz—who may now explore a whole new world of pro ski racing—who stood up to the pressures, the suspense and those newcomers and proved, among other things, that all racers do not peak just as soon as they are taken off pureed baby food.
What an old racer can do on skis, old being 26 in this case, was best exemplified by Kidd, whose ankle throbbed, whose back ached so badly that he raced in a corset, who was homesick for his bathtub Porsche and whose memories of past misfortunes were outlandishly vivid. Eight seasons he had carved away on the world circuit, but a gold medal was always out there somewhere a second or two beyond his reach. He was America's premier racer, but an American spotlighted only occasionally by a silver or a bronze. And it was a bronze again as the 1970 FIS began, with Kidd spiraling to a third place in the slalom.
The medal was wonderful, but the results of that opening race set in motion statistics that were far more important. Next came his 15th place in the giant slalom. Then, when a lot of the top guys crashed, suddenly, almost horrifyingly—because Americans have learned to be a pessimistic group in considerations of gold hardware—there loomed Kidd as one of the favorites for the combined championship. To win the combined, once the most treasured of all the medals, a skier must first stand up in all three events; then he must stand up faster than anyone else.
History will say that Billy Kidd won the first U.S. men's gold medal because he buried France's Patrick Russel—his nearest rival and the combined point leader after two events—by eight seconds in the downhill. It was perhaps the best downhill ever run in the world championship by an American. But Kidd did not just go for the combined, he went for the race. He finished tied for fifth, but his time was 2:25.52—less than a second away from the bouncing, happy Swiss, Bernhard Russi, who somehow managed to win.
As Kidd had said the evening before the most important race of his life, "If I go for the downhill, the combined will take care of itself. If I try to worry about the gold, well, you know what's happened before."
Kidd had four days and nights to contemplate the downhill—and his future as a professional. He had completed the giant slalom on Tuesday and it would be Sunday before the last and most dangerous race. During this period he side-slipped the course once and skied it six times. He doctored his skis and then kept them guarded, as if he feared that some James Bondian creature from the Russel camp would steal into his room and explode them. Waxing was to be very important to the race.
America's rooters, meanwhile, tried hard to figure a way for Billy to win the combined gold without going up the lift. They couldn't help celebrating a little when Switzerland's Dumeng Giovanoli, who had a chance, was injured in downhill training and removed from contention. No hard feelings, Dumeng, old buddy, but you Swiss have been up to your Jungfrau in gold medals for years and we've never had one.
Then came the worries about condition. Early in the week Kidd had said the 2⅓-mile course was pretty much to his liking, just technical and icy enough to suit the more experienced downhillers but not so long and grueling and spaced with so many flats that only the brutes would have a chance.
All sorts of talk circulated through Val Gardena about the downhill training. Schranz was eating up the course. Malcolm Milne, the Australian, also looked good. Henri Duvillard, the best Frenchman, didn't look good. Schranz was two seconds better than anybody. Patrick Russel was slow, a second out. Two seconds out. He fell three times. He fell four times. "It's all a con," said Kidd. "They're trying to get me to cool it."