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And what did these people leave behind for the next regime? Not enough money, not enough corporate support and, god knows, not enough young world-class racers fashioned from the raw material in the grass-roots racing programs.
Howard Peterson, 38, has been the chief executive of the U.S. ski team since 1988. Of the 1984 desertions he says, "The team went through a cataclysm then. There were only 30 racers left on the national team, and there was no development program at all. Billy Marolt didn't have much money and he did what he could. It was about as bad as it could get."
Some bloody budget-cutting took place, followed by even bloodier feuds and battles among coaches, racers and team executives. There were a couple of bright spots, though. At the 1985 world championships, in Bormio, Italy, 17-year-old Diann Roffe, from upstate New York, won a gold medal in the giant slalom, and three other Americans, including McKinney, took home bronze medals.
Thereafter, losing took hold. Johnson and Debbie Armstrong had both won gold medals at Sarajevo, but neither prevailed in a World Cup race after 1984. Roffe followed her victory in Bormio with a descent into oblivion that left her ranked 91st overall at the end of the '87-88 season. Every year the results seemed to get worse.
Yet hope is rising at ski-team headquarters, in Park City, Utah, and it doesn't sound quite so much like the desperate optimism of condemned men as it has many times in the past. Says TV commentator Bob Beattie, who has been close to the team for more than a quarter of a century, first as its coach and now as a member of its board, "Two years from now this will be a much better team. The structure is there; the attention to junior racers is there. People will tell you they've heard all this before, but this is different. It might take six or eight years before the U.S. is a power again, but this time the foundation is there to make it happen."
The chief cause for hope is a group of young skiers known around Park City as The Seventies, because they were all born in 1970. Deb LaMarche, the Alpine team's director of development, says, "I don't know what it was about that year, but we have a mob of terrific racers born then—15 of them, at least. They're all pushing each other, and they should continue to get better all through the '90s."
The Seventies made their mark last April, in the 1989 world junior championships at Mount Alyeska in Alaska, where three of them won a total of four gold medals—Tommy Moe, who comes from Alaska, in the men's Super G and the men's combined; Jeremy Nobis in the men's giant slalom; and Kim Schmidinger in the women's GS. The Seventies also accounted for three other medals—two silvers, in the GS and the combined, by Kim Schmidinger's twin, Krista, and one by Gibson LaFountaine in the women's slalom—and three other skiers placed in the top five in their events. No U.S. junior team has ever approached such a performance.
Moe, who competes in all four disciplines and was first touted as a future star when he was 15, stunned the ski world when, at the still tender age of 19, he had a 12th-place finish in the downhill at the 1989 world championships. While Moe has produced no outstanding results so far this winter on his first full World Cup tour, he exudes enthusiasm. "The team morale is really good, and we're just starting to come on strong," he says. "We've got great years ahead. From '91 through '95 there's a world championship or an Olympics every year."
The men's team may have good morale, but it has not had a lot of good World Cups results. The best individual performance of the season was a startling fourth in the downhill at Cortina d'Ampezzo by A.J. Kitt, 21, who had not finished better than 12th in a World Cup event. Beyond that, the best excuse for celebration was in another downhill: Bill Hudson finished 13th in the 50th-anniversary running of the Hahnenkamm, in Kitzbühel, Austria, which was especially impressive because he had started 43rd.
As usual, the women's team has fared much better than the men's. U.S. women have 205 World Cup points this season, while the men have a scant 57. The women have 36 finishes in the top 15; the men, only eight. Cooper offers the logical, and frequently cited, explanation for why the women skiers outperform the men: "For women, ski racing is one of only a few professional sports they can compete in—tennis and golf being the other obvious ones. There is no baseball, no basketball, no hockey, no football to keep us from serious ski racing. The best male athletes have all those other possibilities that they can choose from before they commit to ski racing."