This season the top American woman has been Roffe—at long last. After her too-much-too-soon victory in Bormio, she reemerged this year, at age 22. She has two seconds and a third in giant slaloms, has finished among the top 15 in 10 of her 18 World Cup starts and is second in the giant-slalom standings. "I had that one shot in the dark when I was young, and I couldn't keep it up," says Roffe. "But the taste of winning is something you never forget. Now I'm ready to be a threat all the time." Another all-the-time threat has been the surprising Kristi Terzian, also 22, who has 13 top-15 finishes in four events—Super G, giant slalom, slalom and combined—after never finishing better than 17th in a World Cup race before this season.
Of course, all this doesn't add up to a single World Cup victory in the 54 races Americans have entered in the 1989-90 season. The U.S. is still dealing in failure. Sylvain Dao-Lena, head coach of the French men's team and the U.S. women's head coach from 1973 to '76, is not optimistic. "It's difficult to create a strong base and a good team when there is no strong tradition of winning," Dao-Lena says.
McMurtry, however, insists that change is afoot. "For one thing, the age of World Cup winners is going up," he says. "We used to discard a skier if he hadn't won something by the time he was 21 or 22. Now we know he is probably just approaching his peak at that age. The sport is on a much higher plane now. Everyone is in rock-hard condition. It's become rare for teenagers to win World Cup races. They simply can't compete against the experience and the conditioning of racers in their late 20's. We've got all these kids who haven't won anything, but by today's standards they're very young."
American ski racers used to have to make a choice between competing seriously and attending college. "There was no in-between," says McMurtry. "We actually discouraged good racers from thinking about higher education. This hurt in our competition to win good male athletes away from other sports, because football and basketball pretty much insisted that a kid at least enroll in college. We now encourage the kids both to go to college and to ski-race. The Alpine team has 15 kids on scholarships. We have tutors on the road for them, and we mandate time for courses during training camps and when kids are healing from injuries."
Most important, perhaps, is the new emphasis on developing teenagers at the home-mountain level of competition. Not only does the Park City headquarters boast a computer program that tracks the race results of some 20,000 Alpine skiers as well as the individual physiological profiles of some 800 elite athletes, but it also keeps in constant touch with ski racing's grass roots. "We have an open channel, so we hear about hot new kids and they hear from us," says Peterson. "We are very serious about recruiting and development. In the past when our top World Cup coaches burned out after a few years of pressure and intense travel, we had no other jobs for them. Now we're going to ask them to work in regional development. Within the next year or so, I guarantee you our highest coaching salaries will be paid to head coaches—and to regional coaches."
This is all quite revolutionary by U.S. ski-team standards. However, if enlightened management and loving encouragement don't produce a multitude of winners by the turn of the century, then perhaps it will be time to ask Phil Mahre to recruit a team of poor kids.