"It would be real easy to lie facedown in the snow, kick your feet and go, 'Oh, my Gaaaaahhd! What's wrong? We're not winning!' But it doesn't help to yell and scream when things are going like this. Winning will happen pretty soon. We know that for sure."
So spoke America's Tamara McKinney, 21, in Bad Gastein, Austria last week as she analyzed the fortunes and misfortunes of the U.S. Alpine ski team thus far in the bleak, dry racing season of 1983-84. Winning ski races, of course, is something about which McKinney is one of the greatest living authorities, being the No. 1 woman skier on the World Cup circuit last season.
Even more expert on the subject is America's Phil Mahre, 26, who last year won his third consecutive overall World Cup for men and is trying this winter for his fourth in a row—something no male skier, not even Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, has ever done. In Wengen, Switzerland last week Phil shrugged and said, "There's frustration now. But I imagine things will get on track as the season goes on. It will get better."
It has to. Indeed, all optimism concerning the U.S. Ski Team's pursuit of gold medals at Sarajevo next month is rooted almost entirely in faith, hope and past performance. As of Monday, the U.S. could count only one victory in 26 races since the World Cup season started on Dec. 1. McKinney was ranked fifth on the World Cup list with 106 points, 83 behind the leader, Hanni Wenzel of Liechtenstein. Mahre's plight was much worse. In a bizarre season of bad luck, bad vibes, bad weather, bad schedules and all-around bad skiing, Mahre was an abysmal 54th overall, with a mere nine points, 113 behind the leader, Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland. His twin, Steve, who won the gold medal in the giant slalom in the 1982 world championships in Schladming, Austria, was doing a little better. Steve was 40th with 15 points, thanks mostly to a third place in a slalom in Courmayeur, Italy on Dec. 13. His standing was no thanks to a freakish situation that arose Monday in Parpan, Switzerland, where Steve did his best skiing of the year but came up empty. Steve appeared to have edged Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg by .29 of a second in a World Cup slalom, but it had been discovered after the first heat that the twins had mistakenly worn each other's starting numbers. Officials allowed the Mahres to ski the second run while they sorted through the confusion. After it appeared Steve had won his first World Cup race this year, and Phil, in his best finish of the season, had placed sixth, both skiers were disqualified.
So what does this all mean? The world was just beginning to get used to the dazzling idea of The Great American Ski Team, a glamorous and dashing bunch of overachievers who could blow the opposition off the mountain with inspiring consistency. The golden dream had begun in 1982, when the U.S. women's team won the overall world championship. McKinney wasn't yet scoring well, but Christin Cooper, 24, the ex-ballet student from Sun Valley, won two silver medals and a bronze in the world championships and finished third in the overall World Cup that year. Cindy Nelson, 28, the 13-year veteran from the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior, got a silver in the Schladming downhill and wound up fifth for the overall Cup. Holly Flanders, a sometimes shy and uncertain 26-year-old from Deerfield, N.H., skied like a bully and won two World Cup downhills, something no American had done, and then finished second in the season's downhill standings, the best American performance ever. This was heady stuff. Unprecedented. And last year, though Cooper suffered a devastating leg injury in midseason and Flanders faded completely, McKinney was magnificent. She won seven races—no U.S. woman had ever won more than two—and the women's World Cup title, another American first.
Of course, the Mahre twins were a great American team unto themselves. Phil had his triple-trophy overall World Cup record and Steve his world championship, both U.S. firsts. Phil had won four World Cup titles in 1982 (overall, combined, giant slalom and slalom). Steve finished third in the overall World Cup standings in 1982 and in 1983 won his seventh and eighth career Cup races, a total exceeded by only one American male, brother Phil, who has won 16.
So hopes were high as the 1983-84 season began. Cooper's leg had been repaired by Dr. Richard Steadman, the team's orthopedic surgeon, and Steve Mahre was recovered from a painful shoulder injury that had slowed him in '82-83. The women's team twice went to New Zealand for intense summer snow training. Bill Marolt, the U.S. team's director, said with satisfaction, "We've never had such good training. The racing season was over April 10, and by May 20 we were back on the snow."
This was decidedly not true of the twins, who only listen to training advice that comes from God or each other. Phil finally finished building his house outside of Yakima, Wash, after three solid summers of hard work. As usual, neither Phil nor Steve did any kind of serious, concentrated off-season training. People have long criticized them for this laid-back attitude, but there is no quarreling with the success it has brought them.
Considering all the American riches on the slopes, medals—some of them gold—seemed to be almost a foregone conclusion for U.S. skiers in the Olympic Games. McKinney, Cooper, Nelson and the Mahres all seemed to be people you could count on at Sarajevo. If not five gold medals, certainly one. Or two. And some silvers. And all kinds of bronzes.
But the wild optimism has given way to an aura of pessimism. John Atkins, for six years the innovative and outspoken trainer of the women's team, said last week, "When a team has been on top, the American tendency is to reject it the minute it doesn't repeat its successes. Right now, some people are saying that the Dallas Cowboys are a piece of junk. That's ridiculous. The ski team is also feeling vibes of dissatisfaction because we aren't meeting the fantastic expectations people have for us."