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William Oscar Johnson
February 20, 1989
The Swiss dominated, but little else was predictable at the Alpine world championships in Vail
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February 20, 1989

Mountain Melodrama

The Swiss dominated, but little else was predictable at the Alpine world championships in Vail

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All season long there had been some question as to whether he was taking his ski racing any more seriously than his window peeping. After winning nine World Cup races last season and two gold medals at the Calgary Olympics last year, he had won only one race this season, a slalom before a wildly screaming crowd of 20,000 Italian fans at Madonna di Campiglio in December.

Although he had finished among the top three in five other races this season, both the press and Italian sports functionaries had criticized him bitterly. Late in January the chairman of the Italian Olympic Committee, Arrigo Gattai, accused him of "summer laziness" in his training.

He did not seem lazy last week. In the Super G he finished sixth, not bad considering that his best-ever result in that event was a fourth. Then in the giant slalom he fell and slid on his left side before making a supernatural recovery to wind up 15th. His second run was vintage Tomba—a savage yet flawless attack—and he salvaged seventh place.

The gold medal went to a spectacularly colorless Austrian carpenter, Rudolf Nierlich, 22, the son of the undertaker in the Austrian village of St. Wolfgang. For years he hadn't been able to put two runs together for a victory. He finally got his first World Cup triumph last season, then won a GS and a slalom last month. At the press conference after his victory, the shy, tongue-tied Nierlich couldn't bring himself to talk into the microphone; he whispered his answers to an interpreter, who translated them over the P.A. system. When asked to explain his victory, Nierlich replied in nearly inaudible Austrian German, "Wenn's läuft, dann läuft's," meaning roughly, "When you're on, you're on."

That same race marked the first appearance in these championships by the immortal old smoothy from Sweden, Ingemar Stenmark. This noble fellow first appeared on the World Cup circuit in 1973 and went on to win 85 World Cup races (52 more than Zurbriggen, the runner-up). Stenmark plans to retire on March 12, six days before his 33rd birthday. As he crossed the finish of the giant slalom, a woman began to weep and a crowd of Swedes chanted, " Stenmark for alltid!" ("Stenmark forever!") Incredibly, he finished a stylish sixth.

Intimations of immortality lurked among the gates on the women's giant slalom, too, for Schneider at last came to life. Though she had graciously insisted that she loved having two silver medals, she finally told a Swiss reporter, "I have to admit that second place in the slalom hurt a little. I won all five slalom races this winter and then I lost the biggest one. Today I'll risk everything to win the giant slalom."

Schneider is from tough peasant stock, the daughter of a shoemaker in the medieval mountain village of Elm, the last bit of civilization at the far end of the Sernf Valley. After she won golds in the giant slalom and the slalom at Calgary, the town fathers posted a sign that read VILLAGE OF THE DOUBLE OLYMPIC CHAMPION VRENI SCHNEIDER, WE CONGRATULATE HER! Her goal in Vail last Saturday was gold in the GS and, for once, Vreni attacked on the first run as well as the second. She was fastest in both and put up a time of 2:29.37, a full 1.13 seconds ahead of runner-up Carole Merle of France.

The last event, the men's slalom on Sunday, was like war, with men falling in bunches. A total of 89 started. Only 47 finished the first run, and by the end of the second, no more than 31 of the original army had managed to make the bottom. Among those who went down were Zurbriggen, Stenmark and Tomba, who finished the week with no medals, an embarrassment that contributed to the firing a few hours later of the Italian team coach, Josef Messner. Among the minority that finished was the blue-eyed carpenter from St. Wolfgang, Nierlich, who became the only double gold medal winner at Vail.

In Vail the Swiss had triumphed once again. They won 11 medals—three golds, five silvers and three bronzes. Next best were the gradually improving Austrians, who took six—three golds, two silvers and a bronze. And it seemed fitting that in the first U.S.-hosted world championship since 1950, the American team seemed at last to be rising out of the doldrums of the past few years. Besides McKinney's double medal performance, nine of her younger teammates had top-15 finishes.

All in all, the show in Vail proved to be great winter theater.

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