You would have thought the Common Market was at stake, or perhaps a magnum of Dom Pérignon, the way the French skied last week in the U.S. Alpine Championships at Stowe. They skied so fast it was as difficult to find an Austrian with a medal as it was an American. That was because the French—you know the ones, Jean-Claude Killy (SI, Feb. 21), Guy Périllat, Marielle Goitschel, all those names that are as familiar to Alpine racing as Arnold Palmer is to smoking—didn't leave anything of much value lying around on the now hot and now cold slopes of Vermont.
The French were so complete about it that they flew off to Sun Valley with six of the eight prizes that were offered, their men and women capturing four races and two combined titles. Or, to put it another way, they collected everything available after the first day when a couple of unknown Swiss splashed to victory in what may have been the dampest downhill this side of Snoqualmie.
If the events at Stowe were an indication of what is to be expected this week in the American International Team races—the Werner Cup—at Sun Valley, then the Austrians, Americans, Swiss and Canadians may simply decide to spend their time looking for Norma Shearer and Ann Sothern down at the Boiler Room in the Sun Valley Lodge. It appears the imposing French will win the team championship by the length of Jean-Claude Killy's name. They were devastating in Vermont, denying the favored and always confident Austrians a single victory in a major Alpine competition for the first time since the invention of stretch pants.
Guy Périllat, a quiet, trim veteran of world racing, led the assault. He won the slalom by a single snowflake over Killy, with Léo Lacroix third, Hugo Nindl fourth and America's Jimmy Heuga fifth, and he took the combined championship as well—again narrowly over Killy. But the dashing Jean-Claude won the giant slalom, satisfying his growing list of admirers, and Marielle Goitschel took the slalom. The French even had the audacity to run in a new heroine, Florence Steurer. This 16-year-old merely won the giant slalom and the women's combined. The French did not just settle for winning four races, they were one, two, three in both the men's slalom and giant slalom, and they were one and two in both the women's slalom and giant slalom. Look at it this way: the Austrians were so thoroughly rattled that Karl Schranz fell in the slalom race on Sunday, and Schranz normally wouldn't fall if he were hit by a Sno-Cat. A lot of Americans fell, too, mind you, but then they always do. The Austrian men, on the other hand, almost never do, yet two of them crashed in the downhill, one of them tumbled in the giant slalom, and two more went down in the slalom.
The French were so good, the Austrians so mysteriously disappointing, that the struggling Americans came off exceptionally well despite the fact that Billy Kidd, the best U.S. racer, was too seriously injured—the ankle again—to be a threat, and Jean Saubert, our top girl, was sadly off form. Jimmy Heuga and Wendy Allen took over as patriotically as if they were carrying American flags down Mt. Mansfield and a lot of prestige was salvaged when Heuga placed third in the men's combined and Wendy grabbed second in the ladies' combined.
Not only that, but Heuga and Wendy Allen got some help from a whole lift line of young American boys and girls who provided some happy promise for the program of Coach Bob Beattie and created hope for the FIS World Championships in Portillo, Chile next August.
"Over all, I think we ought to be delighted with the results," said Beattie. "Here we were practically helpless without Billy Kidd, but our girls really came through and Heuga was as tough as you could expect, considering he was practically on the hill by himself."
Early this winter in Europe Kidd and Killy ruled the slopes, but then Billy took a fall in Austria that put him on crutches for two weeks. He tried to get in shape to race at Stowe, his home town, because he knew there would be 5,000 spectators lining the courses, most of whom he would know by their first names. He reinjured the ankle just a few days prior to the Stowe races in a minor race in Steamboat Springs, Colo., however, and when he showed up in Vermont with a limp it looked as if the meet was over for America before it started. Kidd was so determined to make an appearance, at least, that he put a ton of tape—well, seven pounds, someone said—on his weak left ankle. He ran the downhill and got a lot of cheers, but he placed 18th. He tried again in the giant slalom but knew after the first gate that it was useless, and a short way down the hill he sat down in the snow like a beginner. At the slalom he was just another spectator.
"I wouldn't be any help to the team in Sun Valley," said Billy, "and I hated to put Bob in a spot by making him let me race here. I'm off the hill now. I'm going to db nothing but try to get my ankle strong. Fortunately, the world championships are a long way off and maybe I can."
That may or may not matter to the French. As Périllat said, "I'm skiing better than I have in years, because our team as a whole is stronger and we have fantastic spirit. Our girls may be the best that skiing has ever seen."
Jean-Claude Killy has an even simpler explanation: "We are simply the best in the world." Killy was joking, but facts will be facts, and even bad weather can't drown them.
The weather for the downhill on Friday would have been perfect for drinking lemonade while lounging in a hammock. It was clear, warm and still, and the very mountain was threatening to melt and run off into Lake Champlain.
From 7:30 a.m. until race time at 10, Stowe President Sepp Ruschp had every member of the ski patrol and all of the instructors skiing on the mush in an effort to sweep and pack it for the competitors. More than 50 skiers made more than 200 runs down the Nose Dive race course, but the warmth persisted, the slush got slushier, and there weren't enough ice cubes in the entire Vermont village to have halted the thaw.
Until the day of the race, it had been assumed that the downhill would be the fastest ever seen at Stowe. The classic old Nose Dive had received a nose job in the past year to make it conform to the strict FIS safety regulations, and the famous seven narrow turns at the top had been reduced to four. The rest of the run was almost straight with not one bump big enough to send a racer into the air, even at 60 miles an hour.
But spring came to Vermont the night before the downhill and brought a new challenge to the racers. Mainly, one had to stay in the deep tracks of those who went ahead if he hoped to make time or even stay erect. In Alpine racing the best skiers are seeded first, when the course is normally faster and smoother. But when something odd happens, like a spring thaw causing the trail to get soft and moist, the late starters have an advantage. The course grows faster as skis press the moisture out of the snow.
Marielle Goitschel, the best woman skier in the world, had the misfortune to be first girl out of the starting gate on Friday. Halfway down the course she hit a sun-baked spot called Houghton Flat, and her skis threw up a rooster tail of slush. She went splat and out of the race.
"I fell," the boisterous French girl explained, "like you would in a bath."
As the early girls slashed downward their times showed incredible discrepancies of six and eight seconds, the later ones getting faster, the early ones shrugging off their poor times as acts of God.
What finally happened was not the Great Stowe Flood of 1966. It was simply the crowning of the first of a trio of totally unknown racers who would win the first three events, affording them as much glamour as the quicksand in the parking lots. Madeleine Wuilloud of Switzerland, a 20-year-old schoolgirl known only to her teammates, was the first who managed to get in the right tracks at the right time.
Madeleine won by more than a full second over a chum, Heidi Obrecht, and she credited the victory, rightfully, to her 15th-start position. Austria's heavily favored Christl Haas managed to salvage third place on sheer strength.
It was so unusual a race that a young American girl, Karen Korfanta, a University of Utah coed more interested in the NCAA basketball results than Vermont snow, started way back in 33rd position and skidded into fourth place. Day in and day out American girls finish after dark in the downhill, but there was Karen, blonde, pretty and astonished, being congratulated.
"Are you supposed to beat your friends like this?" someone asked her.
Karen shook her head slowly and gazed over the Vermont hills and said, "Golly, no—not in downhill."
If the downhill competition was unique for the girls, it was an outrageous statistical shambles for the men. Three of the first four were Swiss, six of the first 10 were second-seeded racers, four of the first 10 and eight of the first 20 were, of all people, Americans, and the guy who won was a Swiss who came from so far out of the pack he was suspected of sneaking through the woods.
Peter Rohr was the winner. No kidding. Peter Rohr is a 20-year-old nobody from Glarus who started 27th, and he beat Austria's Karl Schranz, who got second, by almost three seconds. Now you take Karl Schranz and Peter Rohr up on top of a downhill anywhere and give them both a shove, and Schranz ordinarily will get to the bottom two or three days quicker.
Wax had nothing to do with it. Rohr's mighty upset was purely the result of his having the fastest tracks to follow plus the skill he has developed in an extraordinary specialty. He is a strong young man who likes to engage in a pastime that horrifies most of his racing companions. Last summer, for example, he participated in the world speed-skiing trials in Italy—an experiment in which you race straight down a mountain simply to determine how fast a human can travel on skis. Rohr was clocked going over 100 miles an hour. The experiment even mystifies the speed-loving Jean-Claude Killy, who says, "If you're going to do such things, you might as well fall out of an airplane. That would even be faster." Rohr used an unusual tuck in the Stowe downhill, the same kind he used in the speed trials. He kept his head below his knees, and only glanced down the course every 100 yards or so, as if vaguely curious to see what lay ahead. All of these things—his good starting position, his unusual posture, the straighter-than-normal Nose Dive course, the good tracks—combined to give him the victory.
Even the Americans had to admit that it was something of a freak downhill for them to place four in the top 10, led by Heuga's surprising fifth. Heuga is a slalom specialist, one of the better ones, and this was his best downhill finish in elite company.
"I'm skiing better than I have all year, but starting 18th had to help a lot," said Jimmy.
As surprising as Heuga's fifth place was, it was less of an astonishment than the fact that the Swiss not only took first place, but third with Edmund Bruggmann and fourth with Jean-Daniel Datwyler, all of those red sweaters surrounding the second-place Schranz in his shiny black racing suit that makes him look like a skiing frogman.
Thus, the first day ended as it started—with freak results to match the freak weather.
Saturday was entirely different. The hot weather disappeared along with the Swiss. In came some cold wind, a bit of snow and rain, and the French. It was the day of the giant slalom and, finally, of Jean-Claude Killy's victory, bringing reality to the meet. It was also a day of still another upset.
The upset was provided by tiny Florence Steurer, the daughter of a dentist in Lyon. She claimed that never in her life had she ever won a race against anyone like Marielle Goitschel, Annie Famose or Christl Haas except when they overslept.
She won by [4/10] of a second over Famose, while Austria's Traudl Hecher took third and Marielle Goitschel, still off form, settled for fourth. America's promising Wendy Allen, a cute brunette who looks like a member of a road company of The Sound of Music, was fifth. It was a real race. Less than one second separated Mademoiselle Steurer, a little, freckled, doll-like blonde, from Wendy Allen on a good course that wove through 43 gates.
The men's giant slalom was over minutes after it began, when Jean-Claude Killy, starting second, posted a time that was obviously unapproachable. The giant slalom course, starting on the famed National course and going into the bottom of Nose Dive, was much faster for the men. Not only was the wind blowing and the temperature dropping, but Sepp Ruschp's crew had seeded the entire run with snow cement, ammonium-chloride salt that causes wet snow to freeze into an icy crust.
Down under a roof of dark clouds came Killy, as relaxed as a ski instructor on a beginners' slope. As he first came into view he seemed to be going slowly, like a racer who had fallen farther up on the course and was just cooling it to the bottom. But suddenly he blazed into a final schuss, and you knew he was serious. He had taken a couple of hairpin turns with caution, but he had made good time above and knew it.
At the bottom he waited patiently, chatting with reporters and friends, and when each subsequent time was announced he made gestures and faces of satisfaction and relief for his admirers. Killy had to breathe his biggest sigh when teammate Guy Périllat finished only [1/10] of a second behind him.
Killy didn't clown, as he often does. That came two days earlier during nonstop training for the downhill when he leaped into the starting gate with Rip McManus, a former U.S. racer who was forerunning the course. Killy grabbed McManus' arm and sailed down the first 100 yards with him before turning McManus loose and trailing along behind him, crouching, one ski ahead of the other, one arm outstretched holding a pole in the middle, the other arm behind. There he was, going straight down at 40 miles an hour, posed like a statue of the discus thrower and hollering indistinguishable French.
The French literally cleared the mountain in the giant slalom. In addition to Killy's victory and Périllat's second place, Georges Maudit was third and Léo Lacroix was fifth. The only racer to break it up was Heuga, who came in fourth. The Swiss were way out of it, and so, stunningly, were the Austrians.
"I raced well," Killy said. "I took the gates close because I thought the snow was good. Some were afraid of it and went wide."
Heuga's pleasure was mixed. "I could not have caught Killy," he said. "But I could have done about two seconds better. I took three gates wrong. Our girls told me to watch these specific gates, so I went wide, figuring I'd have trouble. I didn't have to. Boy, those girls. They're never right."
Neither were the Austrians last week, but now comes Sun Valley. It will be the last big Alpine race before Portillo. It will prove whether the French are as overwhelming as they seem to be and, with Billy Kidd absent, it will once again give Bob Beattie a chance to console the Americans—and maybe the Austrians, who are normally inconsolable in defeat—with one of his favorite statements: "A ski race is only important until it's over."