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In the wee hours of Valentine's Day morning, Leonhard Stock woke from an uneasy sleep, rose from his bed and went to the window of his room overlooking Mirror Lake. A thick curtain of snow was falling. Stock smiled as he watched it and said to himself, "These are just the right conditions for Leonhard Stock." He returned to bed, and as he lay there, in his mind he skied again and again over each turn, each icy precipice, each spine-jarring bump of the 3,009-meter men's Olympic downhill course on Whiteface Mountain. At last Stock closed his eyes and sighed happily, thinking, "This race is definitely going to be mine."
A day later Stock was once again awake in the early hours of the morning, this time reveling in the victory he had foreseen. At the lavish Austria Haus pavilion on Lake Placid's Saranac Avenue, the jubilant 21-year-old Stock sprayed champagne on friends and teammates, kissed a couple dozen pretty hostesses, not to mention three burly yodelers from a Tyrolean band, and then laughed and blushed as his euphoric countrymen serenaded him with the traditional Teutonic song of celebration: Hoch soil er leben, hoch soil er leben, dreimal hoch ("He should live high, he should live high, three times high").
Tall, rawboned, blue-eyed, with a grand beak of a nose, Stock basked in a glow of goodwill that was as golden as his medal. And that glow will endure. His victory is worth considerably more than $100,000 a year for Lord knows how long and assures him of a niche in the pantheon of Austria's downhill champions in which Toni Sailer, Egon Zimmermann, Karl Schranz and Franz Klammer, who couldn't ski fast enough to make the team this time around, are enshrined.
Stock was brought to Lake Placid as an alternate, the fifth member of an Austrian downhill squad that was more imposing than any assembled before. Only four Austrians could be entered in the Olympics, and as recently as December, Stock had fallen and suffered torn right-knee ligaments and an agonizing tear in his right shoulder. Miraculously, in mid-January, Stock finished fifth in the very tough Lauberhorn downhill at Wengen, Switzerland. Karl Kahr, Austria's celebrated Downhill Charlie and coach of his country's downhillers, said last week, "Thank God he got that fifth place—otherwise, we couldn't have taken him to the Olympics at all."
But whether Stock went to Lake Placid or not, the understanding from the start was that he was the fifth man behind Peter Wirnsberger, Sepp Walcher, Werner Grissmann and Harti Weirather. Indeed, the five racers had met in Salzburg early this month and voted four to one—Stock the obvious dissenter—that he would remain on the bench unless sickness or injury to one of the top four or a divinely inspired performance by Stock himself in training runs intervened. The rest, of course, is history. Stock did produce some truly remarkable runs, and on Feb. 11 Kahr and Professor Udo Albl, chief of the Alpine team, reversed their decision that the original four would automatically compete. They decided that Stock and Weirather were definitely on the team, but that the other three would be rejudged on the basis of their training times. Grissmann, Wirnsberger (winner of the World Cup downhill on Whiteface in 1979) and Walcher (the 1978 FIS world champion) were outraged. Kahr wavered again, letting it be known some hours later that all five would be subject to qualifying competition, but then he was overruled by Albl: the three would have to qualify; Stock and Weirather had made the team.
As it turned out, Walcher was dropped. He was understandably furious, but Stock's training times were so spectacular—twice No. 1 in the whole field—that keeping him off the team would have created a scandal.
After the snow, race morning was partly overcast, and the course had been covered with a fluffy six-inch blanket. But 200 volunteers moved in during the early-morning hours to sweep most of the new stuff off. Because of its consistency, new-fallen snow causes extra friction and makes speeding skiers feel as if they're hitting the brakes whenever they go through a patch of it. Once the course was swept, it was in magnificent condition, thanks to a solid base of denser—and therefore faster—man-made snow that had been put down by the Lake Placid organizers in the weeks before the Games. It was perfect for all the racers. Stock expected to benefit personally from the series of tight turns on the horrendously steep Sno Field section at the top of the run. Stock's specialty is the giant slalom, and those Sno Field gates were set almost identically to those of a good GS course.
Stock shot across this hair-raising terrain with a controlled bravado that sent him rocketing toward the lower part of the course with a splendid first interval time of 37.01 seconds, .3 of a second better than anyone else in the field of 47. His style is so confident, his attack so strong that Harald Schoenhaar, the U.S. men's coach, would say later, "When I saw Stock ski by me up there, I knew he wasn't going to be beaten." Stock's second interval of 1:13.43 was best by four-tenths of a second, and his winning time—1:45.50—put him a comfortable .62 ahead of the silver medalist, teammate Wirnsberger, 21.
Because Stock had been the ninth skier to make his run, he had to sweat it out at the bottom after he finished. He kept a tense watch on the mountain, occasionally cradling his head in his arm. When the last of the best had finished, he broke into a radiant grin and raised his ski poles in triumph. But before Stock dived into the eager crowd of reporters and spectators, he grabbed a walkie-talkie from an Austrian coach and called Kahr, who was still far up the mountain at the start shack. "Charlie, I thank you for everything," said Stock. Recalling this moment, tough old Downhill Charlie said, "That has never happened to me before, and I have had many Olympic and world championship winners in my care."
There were other, though certainly lesser, triumphs. Steve Podborski, 22, put together a strong but typically risk-filled run to finish in 1:46.62 and win the bronze medal—the first Olympic ski racing medal ever for a Canadian man. A member of the wild-charging Canadian downhill team known as the Kamikaze Kanadians, Podborski and his comrades had patterned their approach to racing after the magnificent, maniacal run that Klammer made for the gold medal in 1976. Podborski got his medal, but his teammate Ken Read, who stunningly won the prestigious Hahnenkamm in Austria last month, was barely 15 seconds into the race before he suffered heartbreakingly bad luck: the binding on his uphill ski snapped open as he swung strong through the tough turns on the top of Sno Field, sending him flying into a snow fence—and Olympic oblivion.