The sun will soon drop behind the French Alps, and in Mégève, a little ski town 40 miles south of Geneva, the municipal skating rink is bathed in golden light as a small brunette skater begins a slow spin that will accelerate until her slim body is a blur. A couple of ruddy-faced locals turn to watch her. The skater is now floating through a series of axels as she circles the rink. Her movements are as light as a moth's, more airborne than ice-bound, and one of the locals asks breathlessly, "Qui est-elle?" When he's told that the Tinkerbelle before him is Tamara McKinney, a World Cup ski racer, he guffaws and hisses, "Impossible, m'sieur! Elle est trop petite!" And he stalks away chuckling over the stupidity of anyone who could mistake that slender, flitting figure for a ski champion. Ski racers, as he well knows, have thighs as thick as fire hydrants.
But it is McKinney out there, all 5'4" and 115 pounds of her, and there's nothing too small about her—on ice or snow. She's one of the two or three best female competitors on the ski circuit, and at the moment she's in the process of making as strong a run for the overall women's World Cup championship as any American ever has. McKinney skis with a ladylike delicacy that doesn't quite disguise a big appetite for hell-bent-for-leather speed. At the end of last week she was first in the World Cup standings with 162 points. That puts her one point ahead of veteran Hanni Wenzel of Liechtenstein and 27 points in front of last year's titlist, the demure Erika Hess of Switzerland, who just happens to be plus petite than even McKinney.
McKinney was born in—of all places for a ski racer—the bluegrass country of Kentucky. She's the eighth and youngest child in a family of distinguished horse riders and daredevil skiers. Tamara's father, Rigan, was a celebrated steeplechase jockey and was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in 1968. In 1931 he set a Grand National record aboard Green Cheese that stood for 25 years, until the Charlottesville, Va. course was changed. Her mother, Frances Warfield McKinney, formerly a ski instructor and currently a horse trainer, taught her children to ski in Nevada and to ride in Kentucky, and educated them in between. Tamara's great-great-great-great uncle, Dr. Elisha Warfield, was known as the Father of the Kentucky Turf, because in 1850 he bred the nonpareil racehorse, Lexington, perhaps the finest sire ever. Sheila, Tamara's 24-year-old sister, was a promising racer until a ski flew off during a downhill at Lake Tahoe's Heavenly Valley in 1977. She was flung helmet-first into a wooden post, suffering such severe head injuries that she was unable to walk and speak normally for almost a year. (She now works at a training stable in Camden, S.C.) Half-brother Steve McKinney, 29, became the first skier to break the mystical 200-kilometer-per-hour (124 mph) barrier in that speed-freakish competition known as the Flying Kilometer.
As Tamara slides off the rink in Mégève at twilight, one can see in her the controlled serenity of the horsewoman and the high-voltage joie de vivre of the Alpine skier. She says with absolutely unreserved delight, "Oh, this has been such a nice day. So sunny and nice, and this is such a neat town and I just love being in the mountains and being able to come into town and skate. Yesterday we were training at St. Gervais on the other side of the mountain. I was almost crying, my feet were so cold. But today—oh, today you could hardly ask for more."
Though McKinney is only 20, she's already in her fifth season on the U.S. ski team, her fifth year of grinding travel on mountain roads from race to race, her fifth year of rising in morning darkness to labor through cold training runs above quaint Alpine villages. "At first, well, I was only 15, and I was very distracted by everything over here," she says. "I was looking around in every direction. It was so new and so confusing. Now I've calmed down. But I don't want to have the novelty of it disappear. It's so easy to become nonchalant about all of these things. You have to remind yourself that this is something very special, and you have to make yourself keep looking at it in a fresh way."
Of course, it's enhancing to one's freshness if one is doing well at the races, and McKinney has been doing well for quite a while. In 1981 she finished first in three races and won the World Cup giant slalom title. It was the first time that an American woman had won that crown since '69. In '82 she skied much of the season with a painfully fractured right hand. Although she won no races and dropped to fourth in the giant slalom standings, she finished in the top four in seven of the 12 races she was able to enter. This year she has already won three races—including a giant slalom on Jan. 23 at St. Gervais, where she came in a whopping full second ahead of the runner-up, teammate Christin Cooper, 23. Last Sunday, her sixth-place finishes at Les Diablerets, Switzerland in the slalom and combined events increased her lead over Hess, who was disqualified. Wenzel, the winner of the combined, moved into second place overall.
McKinney, 12-year veteran Cindy Nelson, 27, and Cooper (until her season was interrupted for at least a couple of weeks by a knee injury last Friday) are the core of the most impressive U.S. women's ski team ever to hit the slopes. Last year they led the American women to their first Nation's Cup trophy as the best female team in the world. Says Hank Tauber, who used to coach the U.S. women and is now president of Marker Inc., the bindings firm, "This is the finest women's team since the great French team of the 1960s—and it was the best in the history of the sport." As in the past, the Americans this season skied hesitantly in the early races, but now that the World Cup schedule has reached midseason pitch, the team is performing up to expectations. Through mid-January the U.S. women stood first in Nation's Cup competition, with Switzerland in second place.
Bolstering the winning spirit is a considerable financial incentive, a factor that is rarely discussed. The main reason that the current team is so good is that it can afford to keep its veterans. The likes of Nelson, Cooper and McKinney have stayed in competition because these days a top-level woman skier can easily make $100,000 a year. Equipment manufacturers in effect pay the skiers for using their equipment, although the money is funneled through the team. The arrangement is legal and doesn't affect the women's amateur status. Says Cooper. "I'm lucky to be skiing now because the money for the top three or four women is equal to that for most of the men." And Nelson admits, "If I wasn't making the living I do skiing, I would have quit before the 1980 Olympics. We can afford to stay around longer and that gives us a better chance to develop." McKinney won't reveal the amount of her subsidies, but she does say, "We're compensated enough so that we can concentrate on skiing and not worry about getting a job the month after the season ends." Ironically, her brother Steve was disqualified from consideration for the 1975 national team because a ski company used his name on a poster, without his knowledge and without compensating him.
Whatever the inducements, Tamara is skiing at the top of her game. "I feel so good about things," she says. "I'm in better condition, stronger than I've been before. I'm thinking much better, too. I used to try to go too fast and I'd fly out of tight gates. I couldn't handle being the fastest one after the first run: I'd tense up and try too hard. I wasn't able to plan far enough ahead down a course. But now I can set up on the gate I'm going through and at the same time have my mind thinking way out ahead of my skis, preparing for what's coming three or four gates down the hill."
McKinney has at times been held back by injuries. Some have been serious, as when, at 14, two of her vertebrae were "squished" when a horse she was riding crashed through a jump. Other ailments have been naggingly painful, like the sprained ankle she suffered at Squaw Valley on Dec. 30 when she hooked a tip during a racing exhibition. But she is able to ski through such pain: In Verbier, Switzerland 10 days after that injury, she had the ankle heavily taped and buckled tightly into her boot so that she could compete in her first super giant slalom. (Created mainly because it makes for exciting television, this hybrid event combines the changes of direction of the giant slalom with some of the death-defying speed of the downhill.) McKinney finished third. The next day, in another super GS, she finished fourth.