Until last week, a lot of people saw this as the ski-racing season that wasn't. It had been marred by months of thick weather and thin snow in Europe, of delays that led to a rash of cancellations that led to a series of long, grim layovers in cramped hotel rooms that led to long, grim drives over bleak Alpine roads. In all the dismal crisscrossing of the European continent since the season began in December, no one, man or woman, had been able to sustain any momentum. No one was able to take charge. Nothing jelled. The usually dazzling white circus of World Cup racing had turned a telltale gray—unfocused, unresolved, uninspiring and, most of all, un-fun.
But then in a few short days, from March 5 to March 12, the whole glum mess took on shape, size, light and substance. In a series of eight races in eight days, all held in the manifestly non-European environs of Colorado, New Hampshire, Quebec and Alberta, the World Cup suddenly became galvanized and—amazingly enough—almost totally North Americanized.
The upswing began at Mont Tremblant in Quebec on Saturday, March 5, when Laurie Graham of Canada won a women's downhill in dismal weather. It proceeded apace in Aspen on the following day, when another Canadian, a magnificently muscled redhead named Todd Brooker, swept to victory down the beautifully prepared course on Ajax Mountain. But that was only a hint of the New World splendor that was to come. For over the next six days, in a spree unprecedented in history, three U.S. stars—Phil Mahre, 25, of Yakima, Wash., Tamara McKinney, 20, of Lexington, Ky. and Cindy Nelson, 27, of Lutsen, Minn.—sped to five victories, two seconds and a third in six races.
By the time the powder had settled, two spectacular things had happened in U.S. skiing: 1) Mahre had won two races and wrapped up his third consecutive overall World Cup title, soundly defeating the Swedish superstar Ingemar Stenmark. By winning title No. 3 Mahre tied Italy's Gustavo Thoeni and Stenmark for most consecutive Cups. 2) McKinney, the balletic speed demon who won three races last week and seems to be on the brink of becoming the best female American ski racer ever, had all but clinched the overall World Cup for women. She had pulled ahead of last year's champion, the hard-skiing Erika Hess, 21, of Switzerland, and only a double victory by Hess in the season's last two races this weekend in Japan, combined with an abysmal performance by McKinney in both races, could deny McKinney the Cup. McKinney also sewed up the season's giant slalom title in New Hampshire, but other Americans (including McKinney herself in 1981) had done that before. A victory over Hess for the overall championship would be historic, because no American woman skier has ever won the World Cup.
Beaming with relief and pleasure, McKinney spoke for everyone on the U.S. Ski Team at the end of her wild and triumphant week, saying, "Well, it's almost spring, and I guess we all sort of got a second wind."
True enough, and no one needed a rebirth more than the ski team. It had produced a sterling season last year. At the 1982 World Championships at Schladming, Austria, Phil Mahre's twin, Steve, had won the giant slalom and thus collected the U.S.'s first gold medal in a world championship men's ski race—ever. McKinney had been slowed by a hand injury at Schladming but Christin Cooper, 23, had gotten three medals by herself, and Nelson had won one, too. The U.S. women had then gone on to earn the 1982 Nation's Cup, emblematic of the best team in the world. And Phil was almost supernatural in winning his second World Cup: He made it such a runaway that he clinched the title before the end of January.
This year things were not so easy. Bill Marolt, director of the U.S. Alpine program, said, "The whole team let down after last year. Besides that, everyone was out to beat us. We were no longer those nice kids from the U.S. We were the ones on top, and everyone was shooting at us. Plus everyone had bad snow in the summer and autumn training, so even though the quality was there on the circuit, the consistency wasn't. Even Stenmark failed to finish several races—something he never does."
The Mahres were among the skiers who had gone cold, and at the end of December neither was in serious contention for any titles. In January and early February, Steve picked up two slalom victories, but he had severely strained the rotator cuff in his left shoulder when he fell during an exhibition night slalom in Switzerland. It was an agonizing injury, and he aggravated it every time he slapped against a slalom pole. It got to be so painful that after crossing the finish line in one race, he sagged and nearly fainted on the spot. And Steve's giant slalom performances were so dismal that, depending on his showing in Japan, he may be dropped from the first seed of 15.
Meanwhile Phil's record in Europe was just good enough that he managed to stay at or close to the top in the overall World Cup standings. He picked up a few first-five finishes in slaloms and giant slaloms and gained a surprising number of points in the downhill. Phil amazingly produced eight top-20 finishes in downhills, even though he rarely has had time to train for this fiercely fast and intensely specialized discipline. His difficulties were multiplied because the Fédération Internationale de Ski, the governing body of the sport, had introduced a strange new race known as the super giant slalom—a cross between a downhill and a GS. Angered by the very concept of this bastardized event, Phil refused to enter any of the three scheduled, thus reducing his World Cup point-scoring potential.
The Mahre twins are nothing if not refreshingly—and relentlessly—candid. What they think, they say. At press conference after press conference, they made no bones about their disenchantment with ski racing. Not long ago Steve summed up the season this way: "The negatives seemed to have a way of overpowering the positives. We both believe that there is a lot more to life than ski racing." Phil said flatly the night before racing began in Aspen, "This is the worst year I've had. None of it means as much to me as it has in the past. I've had trouble holding my mind so that I can concentrate on two runs in a row."