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William Oscar Johnson
February 13, 1989
Tamara McKinney ended her run of hard luck—and a U.S. losing streak—with a soaring win at the Alpine world championships
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February 13, 1989

A Flight So Fancy

Tamara McKinney ended her run of hard luck—and a U.S. losing streak—with a soaring win at the Alpine world championships

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The last time the U.S. hosted an Alpine world skiing championship was an eternity ago—in 1950—and the last time an American had won a world-class ski event was no fewer than 99 races ago, dating back to January '87. This changed last week as the biennial World Alpine Ski Championships opened in Vail, Colo. Five days into the 15-day competition Tamara McKinney, the infinitely likable though star-crossed 26-year-old from Squaw Valley, Calif., won a thrilling—and deserved—gold medal in the women's combined.

Before McKinney's triumph spread smiles across the Colorado Rockies, it seemed as if the Vail championships might get buried beneath drifts of bad news. First, a budding Swiss star, Beatrice Gafner, 24, suffered a possible career-ending injury when she fractured her right kneecap and tore her anterior cruciate ligament going over an extra-big bump during a downhill training run. Next came a fatal accident so bizarre and horrible that it was hard to believe it happened: His Royal Highness Don Alfonso de Borbón y Dampierre, 52, cousin to the king of Spain and longtime member of the, Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) Council, was all but decapitated when he skied into a cable suspended a few feet above the snow in the finish area of the men's downhill course at Vail's sister resort, Beaver Creek (page 7). Two days later the reigning overall World Cup champion, Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland, was painfully bruised, though not disabled, when a gust of wind hit him in midair and threw him into a windmill tumble during training on the same slope.

By the time McKinney sped to her triumph last Thursday, spirits were low. The championships had begun on Jan. 29 with the slalom leg of the women's combined, but the downhill portion of the event didn't take place until four long, dragged-out days later—not because of the weather, but because the schedulers had inserted a three-day downhill training period between the two legs of the event.

The favorite to win the gold medal in the combined was 24-year-old Vreni Schneider, the sweet-faced daughter of a Swiss mountain village shoemaker, who this World Cup season has set a record for men and women by winning 10 consecutive slaloms and giant slaloms. Schneider has been so dominant that only one woman on the circuit has beaten her in as many as two slalom runs: McKinney. But McKinney had never put together a pair of winning runs in the same race this season, and her best slalom finishes were a second and two thirds, which left her in third place behind Schneider and Monika Maierhofer of Austria in the World Cup slalom standings.

McKinney's 11-year career has been graced by 18 World Cup wins. This is more than any other American, male or female, has ever had, and it includes that most recent world-class victory by any U.S. skier, in a slalom in Mellau, Austria two years ago. No other American racer has won a major international event since March 1986.

Marvelous though her record is, McKinney has also experienced some considerable disappointments—even tragedies—over the years. At 16 she finished third in her first big race in Europe, was instantly dubbed the sport's new baby star and then failed to finish her next nine races. In 1981 she won three giant slaloms and the World Cup title for that event, but the following season she fractured her right hand and won nothing. In '83 she won the overall World Cup title, something no other American woman has done. The roller coaster went on and on: A strong fourth in the giant slalom (GS) in the '84 Winter Games in Sarajevo was followed by a failure to finish the Olympic slalom. She got bronze medals in world championship combined events in Bormio, Italy, in '85, and in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, in '87, but broke her left leg in '88 and was not fully recovered for the Olympics in Calgary, where she finished neither the GS nor the slalom.

Off the slopes. McKinney, the youngest of seven children, has been hit by a series of family disasters. In 1977, when Tamara was 14, her sister Sheila, a world-class racer, slammed into a post during a World Cup downhill at Heavenly Valley in California, spent a year unable to walk or speak properly and never raced again. Her father, Rigan, a celebrated steeplechase jockey in his younger years, suffered a stroke in 1981 and died a lingering death four years later. Her half-brother, Steve, famed for his speed skiing and other high-risk sporting feats, was badly hurt last year in a helicopter accident at a speed skiing event in Chile. Her brother, McLane, committed suicide last summer following the death of their mother, Frances, after a long bout with cancer.

A sensitive, private Kinney rarely bares her soul in public, but last week she spoke of her mother's death to Charlie Meyers of The Denver Post: "I still feel it intensely," she said. "She was my inspiration and I still can be made to cry about it. A couple of days ago...I was doing an interview with some TV people and they kept pushing and pushing. Finally, tears started to come and they said, 'O.K., that's enough.' I miss her. We loved each other so much when she was alive and I still feel that."

Few people were betting on McKinney to win a gold medal last week because of her erratic performance in the past. She skied a magnificent opening run in the slalom, beating Schneider's first attempt by an ordinarily overwhelming margin of 1.17 seconds. But Schneider produced an explosive second run that shot her .12 ahead of McKinney to win the slalom. To most experts, that made Schneider a shoo-in for the gold. Though neither she nor McKinney is an exceptional downhiller, Schneider had finished a surprising fifth in a World Cup downhill at Vail in March '87. McKinney had never done anything close to that.

Schneider went down the Vail course in eighth position and produced a strong run that kept her in first place overall. But McKinney, racing 16th, hit the course with a vengeance. She had the second-best time at the first interval, and a previously uninspired crowd began to roar. As McKinney sped down the course, her interval times and her speeds were consistently better than Schneider's had been. The noise of the crowd became deafening. "I could actually hear them yelling through my helmet and through all that speed," McKinney said later. "That almost never happens in a downhill."

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