A simple and painful truth about Alpine ski racing is that you cannot win while bumpety-bumping downhill on the seat of your pants or the bridge of your nose. Another is that it takes some doing to outski the mountain-bred men and women of the Austrian and French teams even when you keep tail and teakettle in their customary positions. Last week, on the glistening white slopes above Vail, Colo., U.S. skiers fell nearly as fast as the snow flurries and, as a result, the first American International team races were another sobering exhibition of winning Alpine technique by the cocky Austrians and the mischievous French.
While the Austrians were more devastating than ever in the downhill, and the French were impressive in the other events, the Americans failed to escape from their familiar world of disaster and discontent. In the long months since the Winter Olympics it seems that nothing has really changed on the mountains except, possibly, that stretch pants are tighter. All but shut out of the top places on the first two days of Vail's meet—the biggest anywhere this winter—America seized its one moment of real triumph when Olympic Medalist Jean Saubert, reportedly out of condition, tied for first in the giant slalom.
Ultimately, the Austrians won the men's championship, the French captured the separate competition for women, and the U.S. tottered in third and last on both fronts.
While the meet did little to improve the confidence of the American racers, the international team-race format of U.S. Coach Bob Beattie proved to be interesting enough to lure carloads of fans and lift lines of skiers from all over Colorado, and no doubt assure its continuation as an annual event that will be rotated between western and eastern resorts.
It was probably unfair to expect wonders from the U.S. ace, Billy Kidd, who was carrying the heaviest burden of responsibility in the American camp. Still, Billy himself would have been the last to envision the troubles that befell him.
After having the second-fastest time in the nonstop practice run on the two-mile downhill course the day before the meet began, Kidd, who had won eight straight races on home snow, ran a mysteriously dismal downhill. Tense and unaccustomed to the role of being a downhill favorite—heretofore he has been a slalom specialist—he finished 12th in the field of 18. He was crushed and embarrassed, but equal to the occasion. "I skied like Toralf Engan," said Billy, managing a wintry smile. Toralf Engan is a ski jumper.
But if Kidd's downhill performance was a disappointment in the face of the hard fact that Austria, led by a new hero named Heini Messner, had gaudily swept five out of the first six places, it was nothing when compared to the slalom race the next day.
The slalom was the one event in which Beattie's crisis-to-crisis troops felt confident. Kidd, after all, had been second in the Olympics, and Jimmy Heuga had been third. Not only that, but Kidd's workouts at Vail during the week had been so spectacular that even the Europeans had paused to watch.
In the first run of the slalom Kidd was well worth watching. He spun bareheaded down the steep course in the second-fastest time, and was only four-hundredths of a second behind the leader, Karl Schranz, Austria's foremost racer. When Heuga later ripped off the sixth-best time, the Americans felt they belonged on the same mountain with the powerful visitors.
Then came the second run. Heuga started first and had a good chance, but he was a bit too edgy at the top of the course and eventually wound up third. He later admitted that he had "felt slow." Although France's Jean-Claude Killy, Europe's most consistent star during the 1965 season, carved out a beautiful run and gained the lead, the race was still Kidd's to win or lose from the last starting position.
And three-fourths of the way down the course, the slalom indeed had been won by the 21-year-old from Vermont. Kidd's halfway interval time was the speediest of all. It was, in fact, too fast. The first glimpse of Kidd caught by the spectators at the bottom was a dramatic one—he came over a knoll like a low-flying airplane being piloted by a drunken cowboy. In a moment of doom for U.S. enthusiasts, Kidd cartwheeled forward in a tangle of slalom poles and skis, bounced, bounced again, slid, rolled, flipped and finally just lay there. When he eventually got up uninjured, there were deserved shouts of applause due a racer who had gone all out to win or crash trying.
"I've never been prouder of him," said Bob Beattie, who was running out of things to be proud of. "If he'd made that turn, it would have been the greatest single run and greatest victory in our history."
It was instead a brilliant victory for Killy, who despite a bad ankle had extended himself in an all-out effort ordered by French Coach Honoré Bonnet. "Quitte ou double," Bonnet told Killy at the starting gate. "Double or nothing." The French men were hoping to overcome the Austrian lead grasped in the downhill the day before, just as their girls had done when Marielle Goitschel and little Annie Famose ran one-two in the slalom. Killy, 21, friendly and close to the Americans, was elated by his triumph. "I raced like mad," he said, "and was lucky." But up popped the amazing Messner in second place, and the Austrian men were out front to stay.
Although Austria's Traudl Hecher won the women's downhill, the French sneaked in a second (Famose) and a fourth (Marielle) and went into the slalom trailing the Austrians by only three points. The French were loose and confident because the slalom is their specialty—not that the French girls are ever anything but laughing, gum-chewing, shouting characters. They are also sensational skiers. Off the slopes, Marielle and Christine Goitschel, Annie Famose and Christine Terraillon are as close as if they were all sisters. And, as racers, they add up to a feminine Alpine equivalent of the four horsemen, and quite likely will be remembered in French sporting history just as properly.
At the pressure-filled start of Marielle's second slalom run she was as boisterous as if she were still whooping it up in a Vail restaurant in the Stetson plunked on her head by local boosters. Smacking her gum and bellowing "Vive la France," she pushed out of the start with a laugh and one final remark to the officials. "O.K., go," she said. "Bye-bye."
Off the mountain, the French girls cackled away in private jokes, hugged and pushed each other, and assured one another that they were always at center stage.
"Annie and I go so fast that nobody can catch us," Christine Goitschel would say.
"Whooo," Marielle would grunt, making a face. "They go so slow that anybody can catch them."
For those fortunate enough to have seen it, the crowning moment of gaiety for the French girls came just before the start of the men's downhill when, up on the mountain for practice, they joined hands in a line across the course and sped down ahead of a forerunner, forcing the startled fellow to go around them.
When the Goitschels got off the course, Heini Messner and his Austrian partners got on it and began the drive in the men's competition. If there is anything the Austrians have more of than veal and potatoes, it is downhillers. They should have been weakened this year by the loss of Olympic Downhill Champion Egon Zimmermann, who was injured in a car wreck, but they only raced better. Unknown Stefan Sodat won the Lauberhorn downhill, and four other Austrians placed behind him in direct order. Five out of five. They almost equaled that at Vail.
Messner, a 25-year-old service-station attendant in Gries near the Brenner Pass, is a well-built, shy, diligent young man who could pass for a University of Texas halfback. Less than one second separated Messner and the three Austrians behind him as they buried both the U.S. and the French on Vail's International run. Franz Digruber—just up from Austria's B squad—was second, Schranz was third and Gerhard Nenning came fourth. France's Pierre Stamos slipped in for a fifth, but then came Austrian Hugo Nindl sixth, and a cynical writer summed it all up at the finish by saying, "The scandal in Austria is what happened to Stefan Sodat." He was 15th.
The downhill was immediately given that tired old skiing label of a wax race, because the Austrians had been unbelievably fast on a traversing part of the course known as Cook Shack Flat. Their interval times were truly remarkable—faster by as much as four seconds than those of racers who should have been just about as capable, schuss for schuss. The weather was to blame.
It was an unusual Colorado day with a snow layer blowing in, then blowing out again—a day when the sun shone through the dark clouds occasionally, when spectators removed their parkas, then put them on again. The Americans and French gambled that it would stay fairly cold throughout the race and, therefore, used a mixture of wax on their skis to move them through cold snow. The Austrians waxed for a warmer day, simply because it was mid-March and getting near springtime. When the men's downhill went off it was near noon and warming up. The Austrians had guessed right.
But as U.S. Racer Gordy Eaton said, "Well, the main thing they had was Messner. Then they had Digruber, then Schranz."
The main thing they had in Monday's climactic giant slalom was a seasoned trouper named Gerhard Nenning. Killy blazed in first to become the meet's individual hero with two wins, but it was Nenning's second-place finish that assured the Austrian men's team victory, 107 points to 94. Billy Kidd? Overcautious after Sunday's spill, he yet finished a very creditable fourth.
In the women's giant slalom the Stars and Stripes finally fluttered a bit as Jean Saubert, a Utah coed, gamely skied to a tie for first with the fabulous Marielle. The French girl, irrepressible to the end, tossed snowballs at Jeannie as she was being interviewed for television. That summed up the European invasion about as well as anything.