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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The dazzling Colorado sun bounced off the snowy slopes of the great mountain and danced through the wide windows of the ski lodge at Aspen. It framed, in alternate patches of light and shadow, the faces of 23 boys and girls gathered in the big living room, some of them still dressed in the colorful sweaters and heavy boots in which they had come blazing down the mountain just an hour before. Normally, skiers when not skiing are noisy, and perhaps there has never been a noisier group at play than this one. But last Friday, at noon, there was only tenseness and a silence as they watched the little man standing in front of the huge fireplace.
"I am going to read to you," began Dr. Amos R. Little, manager of the U.S. Olympic Alpine Skiing squad, "the names of those who have made the team." Then he read the list of 14 names—eight of them boys and the other six girls. These 14 would comprise the U.S. team in the six Alpine events (slalom, giant slalom and downhill for men, the same for women; four U.S. entries eligible for each event). When he finished and looked up at the faces—some of them now beaming—he said something else.
"I want each of you to know," said Bud Little, "how difficult it has been for Bill Beck and Dave Lawrence and myself to make these selections...to leave some of you off the team. But I also want you to realize that our primary consideration was to select those who might win a medal next month at Squaw Valley. Although you are members of a team representing your country, under the Olympic concept you will be competing as individuals. We wanted those individuals who had the best chance to win. We think we have a number of them here."
Even a year ago this speech would have sounded absurd, for with the exception of Gretchen Fraser, who never before or afterwards raced as well as she did that day in 1948 when she won the Olympic special slalom at St. Moritz, and the incomparable Andrea Mead Lawrence, who won two gold medals in 1952 at Oslo, never has a United States Alpine skier carried home an Olympic medal of any shape, size or color. (Alpine skiing is downhill racing; Nordic skiing is cross-country racing and jumping.) But last weekend Bud Little's speech didn't sound absurd at all—a most remarkable tribute to the development of world-class skiers in this country since the 1956 Olympic Winter Games at Cortina, and more particularly to the amazing progress of the members of the U.S. training squad in the last two months. It did not even sound absurd despite the fact that the one truly great male skier the U.S. has ever produced is out of action with a broken leg. Wallace (Bud) Werner, a trim, good-looking kid with a soft voice and a wonderful smile, was in the Aspen chalet with the other youngsters, carrying on his right leg an ugly plaster cast that would keep him off his beloved mountains until long after the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley are over and done with.
Much of the optimism at Aspen was because of the girls, especially a bouncy, pony-tailed blonde with the face of a doll and the instincts of a tiger, Penelope Theresa Pitou. In the three days of tryouts at Aspen she proved once again what skiers have been saying for almost two years: the day will come when nobody in the world is going to beat Penny Pitou.
PENNY, PENNY, PENNY
On Wednesday in the slalom, which is not really her event, Penny whipped with breathless skill through the gaily flagged poles marking the corkscrew course down the steep Buckhorn slope. One of the runs was 49 seconds, the other 49.6. Linda Meyers, a curly-haired tomboy from California, also had a 49 flat in her first run but fell on her second, and no one else was really close.
On Thursday, in the giant slalom (a single run over a much longer course), Penny hurtled her chunky 135 pounds down the long, gleaming run called Ruthies in 1:44.2, a time that placed her almost in a class with the boys and left Joan Hannah, a cute little brown-haired number from New Hampshire, and Penny's closest competitor, more than three seconds behind. Then, on Friday, in the downhill race (an all-out dash, at maximum speed, down a long, plunging course), she really turned it on, careening through the gates and bouncing down the murderous straights like a rubber ball. In second place was Beverly Anderson, the enigma of the team, who sometimes flies and sometimes seems to be just learning how to ski. On Friday, Beverly was flying, but she still finished more than five seconds behind the all-conquering Pitou.
"Maybe I'm not going as fast downhill as I did in Europe last year," Penny Pitou said, "but then we haven't had much chance to work on downhill yet. You know, no snow. But I've never run slalom as well and I'll get lots of fast skiing on the trip we're making to Europe before the Games. I guess I'm skiing better right now than I ever have. And there's still more than a month to go."
Pitou, of course, is not the entire story. Betsy Snite missed the trials because of a knee twisted in a fall during a practice run just the day before the races. She watched the trials as best she could from the bottom of the hill.