Not since Jean-Claude Killy of 1968, or before that Toni Sailer way back in 1956, has a single star so dazzled the firmament of world class ski racing. And not since anyone—ever—has one woman ski racer so dominated her sport.
There she is: broad-beamed and strong across the back, wearing the tight, bright aqua racing suit of this season's sensational Austrian national team. It is a wet day in Alaska, a drizzle is falling intermittently on Mount Alyeska outside Anchorage and the young lady has missed a gate about halfway down a giant slalom course—a run in which she needed only to finish eighth in order to guarantee her third consecutive combined World Cup title with another record accumulation of points. But Annemarie Proell, 19, does not even know how to finish safely in eighth place.
So now she is standing on the damp hill past the finish line, relaxed and chuckling with her Austrian mates, smoking a cigarette in open defiance of all the precepts of fitness, and she does not seem the slightest bit angry about her disqualification.
She shrugs. "I caught an edge on the wet snow," she says. "I might have won otherwise. I probably would have."
True enough. Annemarie Proell does not try for anything but first. And it all figures. She is a mountain farmer's daughter, used to long hours of hard work as a child, carrying firewood and cranking the creaky reel to haul haybales up steep pasture slopes to the barn. She is accustomed to simple disciplines and demanding regimens. She is the sixth of eight children and the family was poor.
And even here, in the mountains of Alaska, she is an Austrian farmer's daughter. Her face is round and magnificently freckled. It is a face that is girlish enough, particularly with the snub nose, the apple-strudel cheeks, blue eyes, the tumbled red hair which could as well be full of Salzburg hayseed as near-Arctic snow. When she chooses to smile, she has a fresh and winsome grin, open as an Alpine meadow. But make no mistake, there is regal steel behind all of this, an openly aggressive drive to keep winning, to set records that will keep her status as the Iron Queen of skiing for some time to come, perhaps all time to come.
No one has come even close to Proell this season in the competition for the overall World Cup championship. In an almost scornful display of superiority she swept all eight of the women's downhill races. No one—not Killy, not Karl Schranz—ever totally monopolized every event in any of the three World Cup disciplines, the slalom, giant slalom or downhill. In early February, after Proell had unleashed her cannonball-juggernaut tuck to score her eighth consecutive downhill triumph at St. Moritz, which will be the site of the 1974 FIS World Championships, she said with a cool and confident air: "If I had lost here, it would have been very bad for me. Now next year, I will win the world championship on this course."
On this course—or on almost any other. For there has come to be a sense of inevitability about the victories of Annemarie Proell, an inevitability that has not gone unnoticed by her intimidated contemporaries. Jacqueline Rouvier of France, once considered one of Annemarie's nearest rivals, sighed in resignation not long ago: "La Proell is my fate." And the French coach, Gaston Perrot, spoke with brave and quiet fatalism: "There is only one way to beat Mile. Proell. Knock her over the head before she takes off."
So it would seem. This World Cup season Proell has won 11 races, three giant slaloms in addition to the now famed eight straight downhills. What? No slaloms? Well, it is true. This more delicate event has not been to Annemarie's liking in 1973. Given the arrogance of her attack and the ferocity of her style, it is not surprising that she has fallen almost every time. There are those who say her proportions—she is 5'6" and weighs 150 pounds—are the problem. But that is not exactly true. The difficulty is her daring philosophy of supremacy. "I risk as much as possible," she says. "I dislike easy runs where one has time to think. Thinking is bad." Proell says it was "thinking" that caused her to fail so surprisingly at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo. She was favored to win at least two and possibly three gold medals, but wound up the Games with a mere two silvers. She says, "There was confusion about the team and about Karl Schranz being left out by the Olympic Committee. I was thinking about many other things. I was not concentrating on the races." As for Switzerland's Marie-Theres Nadig, who captured the Sapporo downhill and giant slalom, Annemarie shrugs, "She hasn't won a single World Cup race this year."
And what is ahead? "I will race next year, for certain. Then I do not know what I will do. I like to race cars. I do not know how to cook. I would probably not become a hausfrau if I quit racing." Does that mean she might quit ski racing—hausfrau or no hausfrau—before 1976, the year the Winter Games will be held in her own backyard, Innsbruck, Austria? "Yes, I do not know if I will race in 1976. I do not know if I will want to." She paused a moment and raised her freckled face to the Alaska rain. "There has been pressure, of course, from officials at home for me to stay on the national team until after the Olympics."