SI Vault
 
White Heat
William Oscar Johnson
February 11, 1991
With the gulf war rumbling in the distance, the Austrian skiers sizzled on their home slopes and dominated the World Alpine Ski Championships
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 11, 1991

White Heat

With the gulf war rumbling in the distance, the Austrian skiers sizzled on their home slopes and dominated the World Alpine Ski Championships

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

When the world championships began, it was widely assumed that they would go down in history as the private playground of skiing's new queen, Petra Kronberger, a bank clerk from the Austrian village of Pfarrwerfen. She is just 21 and has been on the World Cup tour for only 3� years, but she won last season's overall World Cup and holds an insurmountable lead, with 276 points for the same title this year by virtue of having won eight of the 16 races she has entered. Kronberger is the first woman in history to win races in all five disciplines, and there were plenty of Austrians willing to bet that she would be the first person to win five gold medals at a world championships.

She began beautifully in the downhill on the slopes of the Kohlmaiskopf, above Saalbach, where the temperatures on the course ranged from 32� in the sun at the top to 14� in the shadowed valley below. Kronberger's chief ski serviceman, Franz Ploberger, asked a computer that had been programmed with simulations of 200 pairs of variously prepared skis which would be the best to use, and got 10 different formulas. So he chose the pair that would run fastest over the coldest snow at the bottom.

And that was how she won: Kronberger was No. 8 at the highest intermediate point, No. 2 at the middle point but No. 1 on the icy bottom. She won by .44 of a second over Nathalie Bouvier of France.

In her second event, the Super G, Kronberger had the fastest intermediate time, but as she sped the last 30 yards toward the finish, where a huge crowd bellowed her name, she caught an edge and was hurled violently across the line. As she lay stunned, the crowd looked on in shock. At last she moved and was helped, limping badly, out of the finish area. After she spent the night in a Salzburg hospital, doctors said that a ligament in her right knee was slightly torn—not career-wrecking, but definitely world championship—wrecking. She did not race again.

The Austrian despair over Kronberger's fall was eased, however, by the young woman who did win the Super G. Ulrike (Ulli) Maier, 23, was a long, long shot who had been put on the Austrian Super G team only as a courtesy due the defending champion. Maier had frequently been injured and she had never won a regular World Cup race, but in the 1989 championships at Vail she had taken the gold in the Super G.

Maier, who had been pregnant at Vail, crossed the finish line in Hinterglemm and burst into tears of joy as she embraced her daughter, Melanie, 17 months old. The baby's father is not Maier's husband but her Lebensgef�hrte (life companion), a policeman who was in uniform at the finish. Maier thanked him for playing Mr. Mom while she was training. "He has gotten very good at diapers," she said.

Four days later, on Feb. 2, Mama Maier came within a baby's eyelash of winning the giant slalom. She led the first of the two runs by a hefty .64 of a second, but faltered slightly in the next and finished with a silver, .16 of a second behind Sweden's Pernilla Wiberg, 20.

It was in this race, the last women's event, that the U.S. produced its best result. Eva Twardokens, 25, of Santa Cruz, Calif., who had won a bronze in the GS in the 1985 world championships in Bormio, Italy, almost did it again, but finished fifth, .41 of a second out of the medals. American skiers competed in seven of the 10 events in the championships, but their presence was more noticeable off the mountains than on. Both the men's and the women's hotels became tourist attractions because of the uniformed sentries who stood outside the hotels carrying submachine guns. No other teams had such visible security measures.

After the Americans had sprinted for home in the war's first hours, critics questioned whether such dramatics had really been necessary. Howard Peterson, chief executive officer of U.S. Skiing, explained, "We could not guarantee the team's security. We had about 100 people—skiers and staff—spread over seven different locations in five different countries in Europe. We had no way of protecting our people, scattered as they were, so we told them to come home."

But what about ABC's precipitate bailout? Peterson said, "I am furious at the ABC people for blaming the ski team. I talked with them twice and reinforced the fact that we did not intend to withdraw from any events."

Continue Story
1 2 3