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Hail And Farewell To Legends
William Oscar Johnson
March 19, 1984
U.S. women and men Alpine skiers won six World Cup races in nine days, but they lost a pair of aces
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March 19, 1984

Hail And Farewell To Legends

U.S. women and men Alpine skiers won six World Cup races in nine days, but they lost a pair of aces

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As it turned out, it was a week of the stuff of which ski racing legends are made—on several levels and in several places. When the twin Olympic heroes, Phil and Steve Mahre, winners of gold and silver, respectively, in the Sarajevo slalom, retired from World Cup racing in Vail, Colo, last week, no one doubted that their accomplishments could be described as legendary—except for a few over-the-hill Olympians who couldn't stand to let these "kids" enter a largely ceremonial race called the Legends of Skiing. Then there was that legend-to-be, Olympic gold medal downhiller Bill Johnson, 23, who on Sunday won his fourth consecutive major race, a World Cup downhill on Whistler Mountain in British Columbia. It's hard to remember that until two months ago, Johnson had never triumphed in a world-class event. Finally, there were the U.S. women, who achieved four victories in the five World Cup races that were held in North America. They were led by the youngest and the smallest legend of them all, 21-year-old Tamara McKinney, who stands 5'4" and weighs 117.

For McKinney, the 1983 women's overall World Cup champion, this had been a year of disappointment. While teammates Debbie Armstrong and Chris-tin Cooper reveled in the glitter of gold and silver medals, respectively, in the Olympic giant slalom, McKinney had only a courageous comeback fourth in the GS and a DNF in the slalom at Sarajevo. Plus she hadn't won a World Cup race and had only a dispiriting series of top-five finishes to show for the year.

Why? Well, for one thing, McKinney had been thrown off stride by the crippling pre-Olympic pressure. "All that publicity and hype, the magazine covers, the expectations, the pressure—I had no control over any of it," she said last week. "It was very tough in Sarajevo because I was supposed to put all my hopes and dreams into two minutes of one day. I got so tired of it all that I just lost track of myself."

Last Thursday the U.S. women took a seven-hour bus ride from Lake Placid, N.Y., where they'd skied in a World Cup giant slalom, to the next set of races in Waterville Valley, N.H., and it was during this long drive that McKinney began to emerge from the doldrums. "I've been burned out the last couple of months, but on that ride I began to get my sense of humor back," she said later. "I began to feel like myself again. I really missed myself, you know, but I finally feel like me again."

Lo and behold, in last Saturday's slalom on Mount Tecumseh, McKinney was also skiing like herself again. In a dashing, reckless first run in which she nearly missed a gate, she wound up with a gigantic .65 of a second lead over the field. It was enough so that she could return to her more typical floating style for the second run and still easily wrap up her first World Cup victory since last March. Not only that, the win put her a mere two points behind first-place Erica Hess of Switzerland in the season's World Cup slalom rankings. The next day, McKinney did it again; she won the giant slalom, finishing a hefty half-second ahead of runner-up Hess, while Cooper came in third. For McKinney the Mount Tecumseh courses are seemingly an elixir: She has won four of the five World Cup races there over the past two years and was second in the fifth.

But for all her excellence, McKinney barely outshone her teammates. Indeed, as the U.S. successes kept piling up, two other skiers' decisions to follow the Mahres into retirement were reversed: Downhiller Holly Flanders, 26, who won her first World Cup race in two years, and Cindy Nelson, 28, long the anchor of the women's team, announced they would probably go on for another season.

The resurrection of Flanders occurred March 3 on Mont Ste.-Anne near Quebec City, Canada, where the temperature was a savage 22° below zero, the coldest race day of the year on the World Cup circuit. After winning two downhills in 1982 and finishing second in the World Cup standings in that event, Flanders became mired in mediocrity. She did no better than 16th at Sarajevo, and her training runs on Mont Ste.-Anne were uniformly dismal. She said later, "I was getting more and more angry, and all my anger came out in the-race. When you're as angry as I was, you just have to do it right." And she did, flying down that hill of blue ice to win by .70 of a second.

If Flanders was fueled by ire, her newly famous teammate—giant slalom gold medalist Armstrong—simply ran out of gas. Reeling from the post-Olympic deluge of public adulation, she had no heart for entering the downhill and sadly told her coaches, "I don't have my head together. If I race, it would probably be dangerous." Armstrong then finished a dejected 24th in the super-giant slalom the next day. After that, the women's head coach, Michel Rudigoz, agreed that it was time for Armstrong to go home to Seattle and take a week off.

The other U.S. results in that Super G in Quebec were more heartening: Cooper finished third, while McKinney got sixth and Nelson ended up a respectable 15th. After the race Nelson said, "I'm somewhat unfulfilled. If I'd had a medal at Sarajevo, I would have quit. Now, I probably won't." She decided to hang in despite the fact that her right knee was so severely injured in December that she underwent arthroscopic surgery and now must race in a bulky special brace. This spring Nelson will have another operation in which an artificial ligament made of Gortex will be put in her knee.

The next women's race was the giant slalom on March 7 at Lake Placid's fiercely windy Whiteface Mountain. This time it was Cooper's turn to excel: She won both runs and came in first by a substantial .77 of a second over runner-up Marina Kiehl of West Germany. Before the race Cooper had discussed her penchant for finishing second—besides her Sarajevo silver, she'd gotten two silvers at the 1982 world championships at Schladming, Austria. "Of all the second places I've had," she said, "the only one that really hurt was at the Olympics. God, I've won so many individual runs, but so few races. I think I've learned something since the Olympics. I've been trying something different—like believing in myself. At the nationals [at Copper Mountain, Colo, on Feb. 25, where Cooper won both giant slalom runs] I was really optimistic. But after I led the first run, I said to myself, 'If you are second again, Christin, you're taking up underwater macrame.' Well, after I won I felt like a little kid winning for the very first time. I knew I was ready to win some races."

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