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One Mahre Time For America
William Oscar Johnson
February 15, 1982
The amazing U.S. skiers carved up the world Alpine championships, winning five medals, including a gold by Steve—yes, Steve—Mahre
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February 15, 1982

One Mahre Time For America

The amazing U.S. skiers carved up the world Alpine championships, winning five medals, including a gold by Steve—yes, Steve—Mahre

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Ski racing's white circus completed its 26th biennial world-championship show last week on the steeps above Schladming and Haus, a pair of rustic villages tucked together in the Dachstein-Tauern region of Austria where the fragrance of street-side cow barns mixes interestingly with the exhaust of tourist buses. It took 12 long, sometimes tedious, days to finish the whole program, and they were filled with the most extreme weather the Alps can produce—deep fog and deep snow followed by a deluge of rain, followed by a glorious siege of bright skies and bitter cold that turned racecourses as hard and abrasive as stone. Yet, after the troupe pulled up its slalom stakes and moved on, there remained a sense of surprise—even amazement—over what had taken place in that beautiful back valley of the Alps. For while this 1982 Fédération Internationale de Ski championship produced its quota of heroes and heroines and its usual share of high drama, there was one turn of events that no one had even remotely forecast: This event was, above all, an American triumph.

Yes, as wild and unlikely as it sounds, the U.S. won five medals—as many as Switzerland and more than France (two), more than Canada (two), more than the Soviet Union (zero) and, most notably, more than skiing's former superpower, Austria (three).

Of even greater gratification than the cumulative triumphs were the individual victories. First and most delightful was the wholly unexpected feat of Steve Mahre, 24, the younger (by four minutes) and until now less renowned of the twins from White Pass, Wash. Steve stepped in where his fallen brother, Phil, had failed, won the giant slalom and thereby got the first gold medal ever awarded an American male in a world-championship race.

Then there was the dark-eyed beauty from Sun Valley, Idaho, Christin Cooper, 22, who won an unmatched (for an American) three medals—none gold, alas—and underwent an instant nickname change from Coop to Super Coop. And how about Cindy Nelson, 26, known as Grandma because she's in her 11th and perhaps best ever season? Nelson won a silver medal in the downhill and was done out of another medal by the scoring system that's used in the FIS's weird new combination event.

Stirring though the Americans' performances were, the individual who dominated the 1982 championships was Erika Hess, 19, of Switzerland. With seeming effortlessness, she flowed down whatever kind of surface the fickle weather produced—including chemically created ersatz ice on a rain-drenched slope of slush—to win three gold medals, in the women's slalom, giant slalom and combined events.

As sweet-looking as a daisy but as sturdy as an oak, Hess was a ski-racing wunderkind who grew up on a farm with 15 cows and five brothers and sisters and quit school to ski full time when she was 15. At 17 she won a bronze medal in the slalom at Lake Placid and this year has won four of the seven World Cup slaloms for women. She's saucy and proud, and when someone suggested that she might want to emulate West Germany's Rosi Mittermaier, who won two golds and a silver in the 1976 Olympics, Hess said sharply, "Don't compare me with Rosi. I am Erika and I pay no attention to who was skiing two, four or six years ago." With the recent retirements of Annemarie Moser-Pröll and Marie-Theres Nadig, plus injuries to Hanni Wenzel, Hess seems ready to be fitted for the queen's crown. As U.S. Coach Tom Kelly says, "Hess is technically the best skier who has ever come along. She's a class above all other women."

Not so long ago one could say the same about the fabled Austrian ski team. No more. Even performing in their own mountains before whooping partisan crowds, the Austrians went day after day without a victory. Not until the men's downhill on the next to last day of the championships did their fortunes turn. It couldn't have come at a better time, because to Austrians a downhill championship is an amalgam of the World Series, Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Thrilla in Manila—you name it.

On the day of the race the pressure for gold was immense, and a bellowing throng of 55,000, flushed with schnapps and high hopes, carpeted the slopes along the 3,401-meter course. The man they looked to to save the nation's face was the one they call Kaiser Franz—Franz Klammer, the 1976 Olympic hero. Though Klammer had fallen on hard times in recent years (he didn't even make the 1980 Olympic team), he had finally won a World Cup downhill in December, and now his country wanted nothing more than for him to rekindle the fires of patriotism that he had lighted for them six years ago. It was not to be. The Kaiser, dashing and reckless as always, took a nasty spill at 70 mph on his last training run and badly bruised a rib. He raced with great courage anyway and finished seventh, but this wasn't enough for the victory-famished Austrians.

They finally got satisfaction from a wiry Tyrolean named Harti Weirather, 24, winner of last year's World Cup downhill title. This cool daredevil started 11th, the next to the last Austrian hope in the field, and swept to victory. "The pressure was terrible. I felt I had to win or it would be a great tragedy," he said. True enough. After Weirather's triumph, one spectator intoned to his companion, "This has lifted a deep shadow from the soul of Austria." No one was more aware of that shadow than Karl (Downhill Charly) Kahr, head Austrian coach and the No. 1 citizen of Schladming. "You can do anything in Austria except lose the downhill," he said. "If Harti hadn't won today, those 55,000 would have torn my house to pieces."

Another Austrian, Erwin Resch, got the bronze in the downhill, and the host country's third medal was a bronze won by Anton Steiner in the new combined event. Concocted by the FIS's heavy indoor thinkers, the new combination involves participation in a special downhill and special slalom held separately from other events. It eliminates the old combined awards, given to the racers who did best in the three "real" races. The idea was met with both ridicule and anger by competitors. Phil Mahre, the best combined skier on the World Cup circuit, refused to enter the new event. Even the man who won the combined gold medal, a certified mediocrity named Michel Vion of France, said of the event, "C'est stupide."

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