Annemarie Moser-Pröll is fearless. She's also intimidating, headstrong and aggressive. She's temperamental, independent and insufferably arrogant, too. Upon meeting Moser-Pröll, strangers find her hauteur chilling and her stare insolent. She makes them uncomfortable. Only her closest friends and family insist that she can also be warm. And Moser-Pröll herself allows that she has her sweet moments. "I'm not a brutal hen," she says. "My husband can attest to that."
Perhaps it's the competition. Moser-Pröll can stand a lot of pain, cold, danger and the rigors of a nomadic life, but she cannot stand losing, and the most celebrated competitor on the women's ski-racing circuit has been losing some big races this season. That has made her all the more fierce. At 26, Moser-Pröll is at her prime, with a body as steely as her personality. At 5'7" and 148 pounds, she presents a more or less solid block from her shoulders down to the awesome bulges of her buttocks and thighs; there isn't more than a hint of a graceful curve anywhere. Her eyes are the color of icicles, a cold pale blue. There is a reddish sheen to her hair, and her face is pallid and freckled. But there is no sporting law that says champions have to be cuddly, and when everybody assembles at the top of a ski run, there is still no other woman who races quite like Moser-Pröll.
This season she is literally racing herself into shape, because she missed just about all of her early training because of injuries. It has produced a strange state of World Cup affairs—with Moser-Pröll in second instead of her usual first spot—and has stirred concern about just what might be going on. Switzerland's Marie-Theres Nadig has had a hot streak, winning six downhills to Moser-Pröll's one. Could it be that Annemarie is human? Possibly. She has lost by as little as 11-hundredths here, three-tenths there, but she considers such defeats to be trifling and her confidence remains unshaken. What is more important to her is that she be in awesome shape when she checks in next week in Lake Placid, where in the final season of her career she will go after the only trophy she hasn't won so far—an Olympic gold medal.
Moser-Pröll will be a three-event threat at Placid—and a beauty to behold in action. As a rule, she does well in slalom and giant slalom—but she really lays them out in the downhill. She has an instinct for the right moves and the strength to hold a line at 80 mph. Where other skiers look for the "perfect line" dictated by the terrain, Moser-Pröll just charges ahead on a straighter, more dangerous route. She holds her tuck longer than any woman, and she was the first woman to change weight from one ski to the other in that position, which is a lot riskier than it sounds. A couple of other women—Nadig and Cindy Nelson of the U.S.—have mastered this maneuver too, but neither can sustain a tuck as long as Moser-Pröll does. The tougher the course the better; Moser-Pröll skis closer to the gates in the turns than her rivals and gains precious split seconds on bumps, absorbing the shocks through her mighty legs. She also rarely makes a mistake.
"Annemarie is the greatest downhiller of all times," says Alois Bumberger, the Austrian women's coach. "She is built like a man, and she fights like one. But she also skis rationally, never taking foolish risks. She wants to win. Only victory counts."
Moser-Pröll sees nothing extraordinary in all of this. "I don't get so involved that I picture myself in advance going through the race," she says. "And during the race I don't think a thing. Sure, there will be problems—but there won't be time to think, anyway. It's just normal when I win."
And, at last, that's when a more human Moser-Pröll emerges. After a race she will dig into her pockets, produce a battered pack of Marlboros and casually light one up. "There is nothing as satisfying as a smoke after a race," she says. This shocks a good many people.
Her closest competitors are more shocked by her winning times. Before every downhill race last season, any number of them would have faster training runs than Moser-Pröll, and they would be pumped up with confidence that they would at last be able to beat the queen. Moser-Pröll would cool it until race day before uncorking the killer instinct. "When I'm second, I see red," she says.
"Annemarie's excellent. She has class," said Nelson, one of the best U.S. prospects in the women's downhill, speaking at the end of last season. "I hold the highest respect for her. I keep learning from her. She has done things in racing that a woman can do only when she has supreme confidence. She has consistently good results; they keep coming and coming because of her confidence. The rest of us are just chasing her—and she loves it. It makes her even stronger."
In the 12 years since Moser-Pröll's first World Cup race as a slender tomboy of 14, she has won 61 such events and earned the overall World Cup trophy in six seasons. She has also collected eight Olympic or world championship medals, winning the downhill in both the 1974 and 1978 world championships. Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, the reigning world champ in the slalom and GS, is runner-up with 46 victories and three World Cups. Franz Klammer, the most acclaimed of the men's downhillers, won eight downhills in 1975, a season record for a male. Two years before, Moser-Pröll had set the women's record by winning eight straight. Last season she won six downhills out of seven. (She fell in the other race, won by Nelson.) In Austria, her home country, they call her eine Frau ohne Grenzen (a woman without limits), a tribute that seemed especially fitting after she took her sixth World Cup overall trophy last March.