There was about as much snow in the normal American icebox last week as there was on any mountain in Europe. Never in modern ski racing had conditions been so poor. The situation was especially infuriating for the world's best Alpine racers, who went from one bare crag to another in search of slopes on which to sharpen their skills for the coming Olympics in Innsbruck. In more than a month of serious training they found a minimum.
However, in a few shady, high-altitude ravines in France, Germany and Switzerland sheets of ice and mud-streaked snow permitted half a dozen foreshortened slalom races and giant slaloms. It was impossible to lay out any decent courses for the longer downhill events, so none were held anywhere, for either men or women. But happily for the U.S., there was enough competition for the spirited American team, led by a cute Oregon State coed named Jean Saubert, to gain an immense amount of respect from European rivals.
A great deal of that respect was directed toward the confident Miss Saubert, whose sparkling blue eyes, pink cheeks, light-brown bangs and friendly personality have gained almost as much admiring attention in the past month as have her aggressive attacks on the slalom gates. This was no small achievement, since her skiing record has definitely established her as the girl to beat at Innsbruck in the giant slalom and possibly the slalom as well.
At Val d'Is√®re she won the giant slalom and ran a close second to little Annie Famose of France in the slalom. At Oberstaufen, Germany she won the first of two slaloms and finished third behind the Goitschel sisters, Marielle and Christine, of France in the second one. Then, this past week, at Grindelwald, Switzerland, she met the biggest test to date. There to see her perform were a noisy array of European newsmen and a few brave tourists who were capable of skiing or hiking on a precious cradle of rapidly disappearing snow below the shoulder of the Eiger mountain.
The slalom course was tight and icy, with 49 gates on the first run and 52 on the second. The first time down, Jean seemed to have a brilliant run going until midway when she caught an edge coming out of a turn. But she recovered with astonishing speed, to finish in 61.08, five seconds behind Marielle Goitschel, the leader, and in ninth place.
"I just wasn't concentrating," said Jean at lunch between runs. "I'm going to fire down this time."
She did precisely that. On an even more difficult course, whose gates were set so tightly that half of the 91 entries failed to finish or were disqualified, Jean was a plunging blur. Her time was 51.75, three seconds faster than anyone and almost 10 seconds faster than her first race. Unofficially it placed her second to the steady Marielle Goitschel, but Jean knew it would not count.
"I missed a gate," she sighed, smiling. "I just went past it. I knew it, but I went ahead anyhow." Indeed she had missed a gate, and she was disqualified for it. But she was pleased with her performance, knowing, as did everyone else, that by taking the simple gate she would not have lost more than a fraction of a second. It was a daring, beautiful run.
Next day, there was scarcely room for the giant slalom. The course was charted from the very foot of the rocky north wall of the Eiger, and it ended only a few feet from a cog railway track. By this time Alpine Coach Bob Beattie and the American men had arrived from Hindelang, Germany (assistant coaches Don Henderson and Marvin Melville had been with the girls), and Beattie, as is his custom, was at the start, having last-minute words with each of his entries before they shoved downward. "We've got to be mentally tough—like a football team," said ex-football coach Beattie. "Each one of us has to think win, win, win in every race. We go all out, making our turns quickly and driving faster. Every day we've worked on our technique of going into our turns quicker and driving hard."
Beattie spoke such words to Jean Saubert up until the last instant before she flashed away in the giant slalom. She made her time early, in knifing fashion, on the icy upper slopes and took the last three gates almost lunging, brushing the gateposts, leaping under the banner at the finish. Her time: 1.37:38, two seconds faster than anyone, a smashing four seconds faster than Marielle Goitschel who, at least in Jean's mind, looms as her strongest opponent in the slalom races at the Olympics.
For the next several hours Jean Saubert was a true celebrity. One by one, the American men came down from the top to hug her and plant kisses on each cheek. French Coach Honoré Bonnet struggled for an explanation.
"Jean Saubert," Bonnet said, "is the only explanation."
Toni Sailer, Austria's national hero of the 1956 Winter Olympics, congratulated Jean and then turned to the press. "She goes to the gates," said Sailer. "She doesn't wait for them. You say Jean Saubert, you stop twice, then you mention the rest."
"Why do you ski so fast?" asked a European writer. "Why," Jean said, smiling pleasantly, "do the others ski so slow?" Another reporter asked why the Americans had not competed in Europe last year. Said Jean quickly, "We don't think you have to ski in Europe to be good."
"You seem to have no fear," said a Frenchman. "Me?" Jean said, astonished. "I'm scared to death." "Then what are you thinking about just before the start of a race?" the Frenchman asked. "Oh," Jean said, rolling her blue eyes and grinning, "I'm wondering how I'm going to be a good sport if I lose."
After this exchange Jean was followed by reporters back to the Schweizerhof Hotel in Grindelwald, where she kept bubbling cheerfully until bedtime.
During the week of the races, Jean received from her sorority sisters at Oregon State a phonograph recording made by four girls, "The Honey Lovers," in her Chi Omega house. So thrilled by the package were Jean and Linda Meyers that Linda raced out and bought a $30 record player, and two other albums, Sinatra and Strings and Swiss music without Sinatra. "The boys had a phonograph when we were with them, but they never let us use it," Jean explained. For two days thereafter the lobby of the Schweizerhof rocked to the sounds of The Honey Lovers, who sing folk songs with the mere hint of a twist beat. "I don't do the twist," said Jean. "It took me two years to get up the courage to try it, and then it went out of style."
Jean has one more year at Oregon State before completing a degree in education. At the same time, she says, she will wind up her career as a competitive skier. "There are other things than skiing," she said. "I either want to teach school, go into the Peace Corps or work with physically handicapped children. I think each would be very rewarding.
"I like to be the best at whatever I do," she continued, "whether it's grades, ping-pong, cooking, ski racing or anything." With a trace of pride, Jean added that as counselor at a camp in Oregon last summer, only her group learned to cook a pizza and salmon underground. That, she said, demonstrated her will to win.
The U.S. team is loaded down with various uniforms for racing as well as leisure, and Jean has been something of a style setter. She cut the insteps out of her racing stretch pants because they hurt her feet, so the other five girls followed suit. Jean also decided that Sunday was a good day to wear the gray dresses supplied them, so they all wear the dresses for Sunday lunch. At award ceremonies, led by Jean Saubert, the girls all switch to their heavy, high-necked, white sweaters, their red-white-and-blue plaid skirts and their long blue stockings. They look like a dance team from Scotland.
"Jean is so great," says Starr Walton, a teammate, reflecting the opinion of all. "She's so good-natured and even-tempered all the time. And when she's on her skis, nobody in the whole world can beat her in any event."
Bob Beattie is convinced that Jean will stay on her skis through Innsbruck. In fact, Beattie believes she will show even more improvement.
"She laughs and jokes a lot, but she's tough. The tougher the race, the tougher she'll get," Beattie says. "Everyone in Innsbruck will be talking about her, but she won't feel the pressure. She goes all out, anyhow, and her natural pride makes every race a big one."
Adds Beattie, "Jean's our big hope, sure. But I think by Innsbruck that Barbara Ferries, Linda and Joan Hannah, all three, will be capable of getting a medal. I really do."
The outlook was hardly as encouraging for the American men, although Beattie was, before the Lauberhorn races, swollen with equal pride over their accomplishments. "We'd done a lot of talking before we came over," he said. "We'd complained about the seedings for Innsbruck (SI, Dec. 16) and insisted our level of skiing was as good as any."
At the beginning of the European swing it seemed at least as good. At Val d'Isére, against the French and Swiss, Buddy Werner won the slalom and Jimmy Heuga was fourth in the giant. After Christmas the men moved to Hindelang, Germany for the first meeting with Austrians—and Beattie found himself once again in the thick of the seeding squabble: the U.S. starting positions were no better at Hindelang than those they had been given for Innsbruck. For example, Billy Kidd, one of the finest young racers anywhere, was sent off 47th in the slalom. "Nationalism has reared its ugly head over here," snapped Beattie.
Then the racers themselves made the most effective comment. Kidd placed third in the slalom behind Fran√ßois Bonlieu of France and Pepi Stiegler of Austria, with Ferries fifth. The other good young American, Jimmy Heuga, was third in the giant slalom, won by Edmund Bruggmann of Switzerland.
At last, Europe's near-sighted ski officials began to get the message, and they proceeded to do something about it. This past weekend, before a pair of giant slaloms and one slalom held on the same chopped-up Eiger course the women had used earlier in the week, Robert Faure, chairman of the international seeding committee, wrote a letter suggesting that several Americans be added to the first flight of starters. Armed with this letter and his own loud voice ("I keep hollering at the Austrians"), Beattie got Werner, Heuga and Kidd into the top group for the first of two giant slalom races. Kidd finished fifth (the winner was Austria's Egon Zimmermann), and might have done better on the fog-shrouded course but for one troublesome gate where he turned too wide. Werner, who started before Kidd and tied Heuga for seventh, tried to warn his teammates about the gate with a call over a walkie-talkie. But the call got through after Kidd had taken off; unwarned, he lost a couple of seconds on the way down.
The next day the entire American team faltered and fell (the best finish was Bill Marolt's dreadful 30th). The Austrians, again led by Egon Zimmermann, whose dominance of the pre-Olympic tune-ups has become a source of some awe to his rivals, took three of the top four places. The results of the slalom were just as disastrous for the U.S., but even more discouraging. Werner made a beautiful first run, and had the race won until he took one of his celebrated pratfalls only eight gates from the finish. "We'd been walking on air. It was time for a fall, I guess," said a gloomy Beattie afterward. "It's going to be tough now to get three guys in the top seed in the Olympics. We've got to ski better and I've got to keep hollering."