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.
Betsy skis with beautiful style, is even sharper than Penny at slalom and is rated among the world's best at downhill, too. Together, the two of them won a handful of major races in Austria and Switzerland last winter against topflight competition, and there is no reason to believe that the Europeans should suddenly overpower them now. It was this appreciation of Betsy's great ability that prompted Little and Dave Lawrence, coach of the women, to name her to the team, with the blessings of Malcolm McLane, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Ski committee, even though she was unable to race in the trials.
"Thank heavens we had a little leeway," said Little, "or this might have been another Dave Sime case. Our selections were made approximately 50% from the results of the trials, 25% from the way squad members performed during the training period and 25% from our own assessment of their abilities, taking past performances and potential into account. Dave Lawrence wanted Betsy on the team. He knows she is capable of winning a medal. So Malcolm said, 'O.K., put her on the team,' and that was that. She should be on skis again in 10 days and working hard in two weeks. The Olympics don't begin until February 18. We think she'll be ready."
If she is not, the U.S. women still have unusual depth, with Pitou and Meyers, who skis all events well, and Anderson, who is capable of coming through with a big race, particularly in the downhill, and Renie Cox, a friendly blonde girl from upstate New York, who is especially good at slalom. Cox had two fine, steady runs on Wednesday to finish second in combined time to Pitou and is considered absolutely deadly on an icy course. But the real surprise may be Joan Hannah, daughter of one of the country's leading experts on ski-trail layout and a remarkable little competitor who seems to improve with every race. Her giant slalom on Thursday, although three seconds behind Pitou's, was still two seconds better than that turned in by Linda Meyers. And although Joan fell during the downhill she bounced up to finish sixth in respectable time. Without the fall she might have pushed Pitou all the way, for this is her best event.
As for the men, it seemed only a few weeks ago that they could certainly win at least one gold medal, for Bud Werner in top form is quite possibly the best skier in the world today. With Werner sidelined there is no such confidence. Yet, as sometimes happens after a team takes a heavy blow, there has been a remarkable surge of spirit.
THREE SECONDS FASTER
"It's hard to explain," said Tom Corcoran, who has a master's degree from Harvard business school and at 28 is the oldest member of the squad. "But when Buddy was hurt we just realized we would all have to work a little harder. It's funny how quickly you could see the results."
"The improvement in every boy on this team is amazing," said Coach Beck, the handsome ex-Dartmouth racer who finished a surprise fifth in the 1952 Olympic downhill at Oslo. "I believe every one of them is at least three seconds faster than at this time last year. Working together like we have, training hard, competing together, has made the difference. I'm still not satisfied, but I'm beginning to feel a little better."
The two standouts in the trials at Aspen were Chuck Ferries, a 20-year-old Denver University skier who has been coming on like gang-busters in the last year, and Max Marolt, who is only 23 but who has been skiing in topflight competition for a number of seasons and probably has more international experience than any member of the men's team except Tom Corcoran.
The slalom is Ferries' love, for he is a stylist, quick and smooth. The challenge of the devilish little poles marking the course seems to generate a special determination in his slender frame. His slalom runs were the two best of the day, 1:01.5 for the first, a 10th of a second slower for the second. Frank Brown, a friendly young man of 22 from McCall, Idaho, who is married, a father and an honor student in architecture at the University of Colorado, finished second to Ferries with times of 1:02.2 and 1:02.1.
Marolt, however, was the real tiger of the trials. He is not a good slalom racer, for he skis very hard, hitting the sharp turns with a smack that costs him time at each gate. He is sensational to watch but does not get to the bottom very fast. The way he runs the giant slalom and downhill, however, is something else. He looks fast and he is fast. Anyone who would like to know how Max Marolt arrives at the proper psychological peak for a great downhill race should ride with him sometime in a fast car around the hairpin turns of his Colorado mountain roads. Maybe skiing seems tame to Max after that. Anyway, he turned it on at Aspen.
In the giant slalom Marolt was timed in 1:35.8, just a shade better than Dave Gorsuch, a big, well-controlled skier from Climax, Colo., who, although barely 21 now, was a member of the 1958 U.S. team at the world championship meet at Bad Gastein, Austria. Almost two seconds behind these two were Corcoran and Marv Melville, at 24 another of the veterans. Corcoran, using a slightly shorter ski than the others, had a phenomenal run down the steep pitch making up the last half of the course, and his technique through the gates was the flashiest of the day. Later, however, he had to admit that he had outguessed himself. "Those short skis were fine for the gates," he said, "but they cost me too much time on the long runout up there at the middle. I felt as though I were crawling."
On Friday, Marolt turned in the greatest run of his life. Because of the meager snow on the lower slopes of the mountain the downhill course had to be shortened; it was really a sort of expanded giant slalom. Still, it was tough and fast, with a couple of rugged turns and some wicked bumps, and with at least one spot where a skier felt he was shooting off the edge of the earth.
Down this run Marolt came like a homesick dive bomber. When he made the final sharp turn and went down the long pitch to the finish, everyone on the mountain knew he had seen a terrific race. The skiers who had completed their runs and were grouped around the finish line sent up a roar that seemed to shake the powder snow out of aspen trees halfway up the hill. The time was 1:39.5, and no one else was able to get within three seconds of that. Gorsuch again finished second, with young Gordy Eaton and Corcoran tied for third.
"I was a little disappointed after the slalom," said Beck. "Too many finished too close together. I'd rather have seen somebody really take off and disappear. Same way with the giant slalom, although it was a little better. But I was real pleased with Max in the downhill."
"I don't know exactly how to explain it," said Marolt. "I've been skiing competitively a long time. Three trips to Europe, against all the good ones. Skied with Buddy Werner an awful lot. But now, suddenly, all the things I've been learning but didn't really know how to use seem to be fitting together. I can feel it. It feels pretty good, believe me. We may surprise somebody yet."
So, the team which will represent the U.S. in the Alpine ski events at Squaw Valley has been picked. The team will travel during these next three weeks to Kitzb√ºhel, Austria and Még√®ve, France and possibly Davos and St. Moritz in Switzerland, to compete in tune-up meets against the best that Europe has to offer. When these youngsters get to Squaw Valley next month they will be the most experienced, the sharpest, and almost certainly the best ski team that America has ever sent into Olympic competition.