On the one hand it will be remembered as the Jigoku no yona Arupen Sekai Senshuken Taikai—the Alpine World Ski Championships from Hell—a 12-day Japanese nightmare in which most of the world's best racers wound up imprisoned at Shizukuishi, a ski resort near the city of Morioka, 320 miles north of Tokyo, where they endured a paralyzing procession of postponements caused by the wildest winter weather most of them had ever experienced. From Siberia and over the Sea of Japan came gale-force winds, blinding blizzards, torrential rain, heavy fog and temperatures warm enough to melt snow and cold enough to freeze snow as hard as steel. This says nothing of the powerful earthquake (6.6 on the Richter scale) that shook skiers in their beds on Feb. 7 and triggered tidal-wave warnings along Japan's northwest coast. Truly hellish.
On the other hand, when the racers did get their chances to ski during breaks in the weather, these championships became decidedly sunnier. Indeed, the world's Alpine heroes produced memories so stirring that Siberia's most violent climatic concoctions could not spoil them. Foremost among the nonmeteorological developments was the triple-medal triumph of 21-year-old Kjetil Andre Aamodt. He was part of a formidable Norwegian men's team that accounted for three gold medals and two silvers. Then there were the downhill victories by a pair of 23-year-old no-names, previously winless in World Cup races: Kate Pace, a Canadian who won despite a fractured left wrist, and Urs Lehmann of Switzerland, who had entered the Japanese championships at Shizukuishi in 1990 to gain experience on the course that would be used for these worlds. Finally, strong performances were also turned in by three U.S. skiers: Julie Parisien, 21, who took the silver in the women's slalom; Picabo Street, also 21, who was second in the women's combined; and AJ Kitt, 24, who was third in the men's downhill.
The U.S. women's team has suffered myriad injuries in recent seasons, and Parisien, with a broken left wrist, broken teeth and a troublesome knee, has been particularly unlucky. Yet the adversity she overcame to make her way onto the awards podium last week was more profound than any physical injury. Her brother Jean-Paul, 24, was killed shortly before Christmas by a hit-and-run driver who caused J-P's car to crash into a tree in rural Maine, near where the Parisiens live. J-P had served as the leader and inspiration for his three younger siblings, and the loss had a shattering effect on the family.
"Maybe I'm just shutting out the sentimental stuff and postponing my grief until spring," said Julie. "But I feel he is still with us. I feel his presence. He was with me during the race."
If so, J-P helped his sister produce an excellent first run in the slalom on Feb. 9; at the break she stood second, behind New Zealand's Annelise Coberger. In the second run Parisien uncorked another beauty, but about halfway through, a gate pole whipped down across her skis and broke her rhythm. "I sat back and got real defensive for a second," recalled Parisien. "Then I got my concentration back. But that little flaw cost me the gold medal, I'm positive." Coberger missed a gate in her second run, but Karin Buder, 28, a longtime World Cup also-ran from Austria, blasted out of the pack to beat Parisien by .21 of a second.
After the race, Parisien wept. "J-P would be psyched at how strong I am," she said, "but he would have told me that it was a real downer that I didn't get the gold. I feel I let him down. I know that sounds harsh and I know it sounds sad, but it isn't. My brother had great, great compassion, but he also believed in pressuring us to do our very best."
In her short career Parisien has three World Cup victories and a fourth-place finish in the 1992 Olympic slalom, so her performance last week wasn't all that surprising. As for Street, a free spirit from Sun Valley, Idaho, her silver came right out of the blue. Street, whose first name, Picabo, is pronounced "PEEK-a-boo," had never finished better than eighth in a World Cup event, and no one expected her to leave Japan with any hardware.
No one, that is, except Street. Never a star, she has nevertheless acted like one at times. "When someone tells me there is only one way to do things, it always lights a fire under my butt," she said. "My instant reaction is, 'I'm gonna prove you wrong.' " This attitude got her sent home from the U.S. team's training camp in the summer of 1990 because she refused to do the dry-land conditioning the coaches demanded.
According to Street's father, Stubby, a mason by trade and a gentle hippie by nature, Picabo, who is named after a town near Sun Valley, "was one of those naturally talented kids who was surprised to find out that she had to work. Every once in a while you had to boot her in the rear, and then you had to stroke her. There were times when you wanted to yell, 'Damn it! You could be the best in the world.' " Picabo was certifiably second best after the Shizukuishi combined, which consists of a downhill race (in which she finished first) and a slalom (13th). The winner was Miriam Vogt, 25, a German who came in second in both races.
Kitt has been prowling around the edges of stardom since December 1991, when in Val d'Isère, France, he became the first U.S. skier to win a World Cup downhill since Olympic gold medalist Billy Johnson in 1984. Kitt has not won another, but he has piled up enough top-10 performances to qualify as a threat on every downhill course, from the toughest to the easiest. The one at Shizukuishi, the shortest men's run in the world championships' 62-year history, was among the latter. Said Kitt after getting the bronze, "It's a fun course, though maybe not a real championship test."