For nearly a decade he had been on the road almost constantly from November to March. For the past five years he had been married, and now there were two small children to support. At 26, his back ached more than occasionally, and his two fused vertebrae were offering increasingly pronounced resistance to the tucks and turns demanded in his trade. Then, of course, there were the whispers that maybe the sport had simply passed Kyle Rasmussen by. He had already survived one putsch, after the 1993 campaign—his worst season—when U.S. Skiing had tried to bring in younger blood to resurrect its flagging program. "I'm sure there were people who believed the sun was setting on his career," says Kyle's wife, Linda.
Last Saturday, however, the sun no longer appeared to be setting on Rasmussen. Instead its glow washed over him as he stood on the winner's podium in Wengen, Switzerland. Earlier that day Rasmussen, who joined the U.S. Ski Team in 1985, had won his first World Cup race, edging Werner Franz of Austria by .08 of a second in the downhill. "It was a weird, unbelievable feeling," he said. "Everybody's eyes were on me."
Less than 24 hours later Picabo Street would win a women's World Cup downhill in Cortina d'Ampezzo. Italy, marking the first time a U.S. woman and man have won downhills in the same weekend. But then, Street and teammate Hilary Lindh have been accumulating victories with such regularity—four downhill wins in five races between the two of them—that Street's triumph was scarcely news.
This weekend belonged instead to Rasmussen, a cattle rancher from Angels Camp, Calif., whom the European press years ago dubbed Cowboy Kyle. Not only had his win come one week after a 54th-place finish at Kitzbuehel, Austria, but it had also occurred on the vaunted Lauberhorn, one of the crown jewels of the World Cup circuit. "He's overcome a lot of demons," Street said of Rasmussen. "And to do it on that slope!"
The Lauberhorn is the Pebble Beach of downhill racing, making it all the more improbable that its conqueror would be a man who was pondering retirement when the circuit made this stop last year. After all, Rasmussen was coming off a '93 season in which his best finish was 25th place, U.S. Skiing was wrapping up a summer of housecleaning, and nerves were frayed all around. "It was a tense time for all of them," Linda says.
Of course, for American skiing the sun was about to break through: A month after the 1994 Lauberhorn stop, Tommy Moe won a gold and a silver medal at the Lillehammer Olympics to lead a five-medal U.S. charge. But for Rasmussen, things did not pick up beyond a couple of top-10 finishes at the end of the World Cup season. So when he started poorly this winter, the retirement whispers began anew and didn't stop until he finished his run down the Lauberhorn.
When Kyle is in Europe, Linda will frequently wake at 3 a.m., hoping for a celebratory phone call. Last Thursday she dreamed that a friend had come over in the wee hours to tell her Kyle had finally broken through. "I raced to the phone to call the U.S. Skiing Hotline to find out if it was really true," Linda says, "but I couldn't remember the number."
Two days later, at 4:20 a.m., Linda was awakened by someone phoning from Wengen. Kyle had won, the voice said. A half hour later Kyle's agent, Chris Hanna, called with congratulations. Furiously, Linda tried to confirm the win through the hotline, but as before, she failed. Only when Kyle rang before dawn did she know he had won: "That's when I realized it wasn't a dream."
For Street, no year has been a sweeter dream than this one. With the world championships scheduled to begin (snow permitting) next Monday in Sierra Nevada, Spain, Street moved within 31 points of circuit leader Lindh in the downhill standings, an astounding situation for American skiing. The U.S. women's coach is Herwig Demschar, who took the job after the death last January of Ulrike Maier, the Austrian star whom he coached. Demschar immediately saw in the Americans a refreshing contrast to the coldly efficient Europeans. It is a difference he has accentuated. "He's encouraged us to have more fun," says Street. "He told us that when we showed up at a race, he wanted us to fall out of the van laughing and having a good time. It would give us an edge, and the Europeans would go nuts."
So there were the Americans, heeding Demschar's advice last weekend. On Sunday they could be seen piling out of their van only minutes after dusting a Swiss timing truck on the road to Cortina. They then stood around cutting up. "I was loose," says Street. "I was telling my opponents, 'I'm having fun.'"