At the end of the 1978-79 World Cup ski racing season last March, Ingemar Stenmark flew from Furano, Japan, site of the final race, to Hawaii, where he and a few other skiers, along with Serge Lang, the bluff French journalist who is father, grandfather and godfather of the World Cup circuit, planned to relax on Kauai's Lihue Beach. The season had been long, ultimately tedious, and everyone was sick of skis, snow, mountains. The racers made a pact not to talk about their sport; the first to break the ban would spring for a bottle of champagne. Stenmark sprang. Over dinner he said to Lang, "Tell me about Killy."
Sipping Ingemar's champagne, they spoke about the triple-gold-medal winner of the 1968 Games. They talked especially of Killy's competence as a downhill racer and about Stenmark's consistent refusal to enter that event. "Ingemar said he was bored with doing only the giant slalom and the slalom," Lang recalls. "Same guys, same faces. We talked about how a real legend probably had to ski all three events. Ingemar said, 'I want to be a complete champion.' But he said he did not want to start the downhill until after the Lake Placid Olympics."
But later Stenmark changed his mind. Early last summer he began testing downhill skis on the glaciers above Val Senales in the Italian Alps. In September he started full-time training there. On the morning of Sept. 14 he and the Norwegian racer, Erik Haker, a fine downhiller, made a training run, then another. Stenmark was absolutely at the top of his form.
"He was a second faster than Haker," says Lang, who was there. "He is the supreme racer, and he was doing very high speeds." On his third run, the following day, Stenmark hit a compression at high speed. A bit of wind buffeted him at the same time, and he went out of control and into a violent, tumbling fall over perhaps 200 meters of the glacier. For a moment he was unconscious. Then, lying in the snow, he went into a series of violent spasms and began foaming at the mouth as if he were having an epileptic seizure. Stenmark was helicoptered to a hospital at Bolzano, Italy, where it was discovered he had a major concussion. When Lang saw him later that day, Stenmark, prone in a hospital bed, said, "I'll be back."
Last week he was back. His gold medals in the giant slalom and the slalom did not quite match the legendary feats of Jean-Claude Killy, but Stenmark was still the indisputable king of Whiteface Mountain—though he wasn't the only king on the slope. Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden was at the finish line to witness his subject's triumphs.
Stenmark wasn't always his usual flawless self. In his first run of the GS, he skied an oddly unrhythmic run. Indeed, at the fourth gate from the bottom, he almost fell—something he has not done in years. He lost precious split seconds there, and the next day he was to start the second run from third position. But when Stenmark skied that run, he was once again perfection personified, finishing in 1:20.25, a spectacular .95 of a second ahead of the entire field. He was then escorted into the presence of the other king of the mountain, who said to him, "I was frightened during your run yesterday. I was afraid you would fall." Said Stenmark, "So was I."
The slalom was also a bit of a cliffhanger. The two courses were set down dramatic, steep terrain that formed a fast and very technical run. After the first go-round Stenmark was fourth, .58 of a second behind the leader, Phil Mahre of White Pass, Wash. But then Stenmark produced another of his patented second runs, finishing more than a full second faster than Mahre to win the gold medal with a combined time of 1:44.26 to Mahre's 1:44.76.
If possible. Stenmark is now even more of a national hero than heretofore. Though Bjorn Borg occasionally outranks Stenmark in sports popularity polls in Sweden, there is a warmer feeling for Stenmark because, unlike Borg, he has kept his home in Sweden, pays taxes there and has served his prescribed tour of duty in the army.
Stenmark is a Swede through and through, a stoic fellow whose stubborn shield of shyness cannot be penetrated. He is from cold mountains more than 1,000 miles north of Stockholm, bitter Arctic country where, on winter's shortest days, the sun can be glimpsed for no more than half an hour. Stenmark spent his first six years living on his grandparents' farm, a few miles from his present hometown of Tarnaby. It was a lonely place, with only a few Lapp children living nearby, and young Ingemar skied because, as he says now, "It was a thing I could do alone." After he moved to Tarnaby to be with his parents, he went to school but remained shy to the point of seeming dumbstruck. He was also a grim and stubborn perfectionist, sobbing angrily whenever he was beaten in children's ski races.
Now Stenmark is rich—very rich—and famous—very famous. Indeed, his parents were married in a civil wedding ceremony only four years ago because their son had become so famous. In the hard, pragmatic life-style of the Swedish Arctic, formal marriage has never been considered more than that—a formality—but with all the world watching Ingemar, his mother and father decided to meet others' standards of propriety. As for riches, Stenmark's double gold medals could mean as much as $1 million a year to him.