She would have been a beautiful world champion, little Annie. She had all of it: the gamin look, the turned-up personality and nose to match; that catch-me-come-kiss-me haircut. The walk of a lady panther. Annie Famose also had an impressive lead on the World Cup, with nine races down and 11 to go, when she came to St. Anton am Arlberg in Austria last week. There she fell, with what has to be the thump heard round the ski world. In a matter of minutes the race to find the world's top woman skier was wide open again and it was a sad day for pixies everywhere.
Things started smoothly enough. The traveling ski circus, slowly working its way across the mountaintops of Europe toward a final stand in the United States, arrived in town and unpacked for the Arlberg-Kandahar: boys and girls together for a weekend that would include two downhills and two slaloms, followed by some St. Magdalena, which is Austria's best wine, followed by a little dancing in the picturesque streets when it was all over. This season's racing series has been like that, ragged in an off-Olympic year, and not to be taken too seriously. Still, it is a vintage year for girls, with the French and Austrians fighting it out for top honors until the world championship next year—and with the Americans sort of on the verge, as they always are, of getting there. And while the men racers provide the slam-bang touch to this dangerous game, a lot of that kick has already gone: the series already has been awarded over to Austria's Karl Schranz (SI, Jan. 27), who came to town and won the downhill as expected. No surprises there, it is Karl's home town. It was the girls that St. Anton turned out to see.
And there was little Annie; the Minnie Rooney of the mountains, 24 years old and captain of the French team, all nicely zipped into that skintight, shiny blue racing suit, looking like she had her crash helmets done by Yves Saint Laurent—with just enough of a lead in cup points to make it exciting. On the way to St. Anton she had barreled her way to two second and two fourth places in slalom; second and third in a pair of downhills; a third in a giant slalom and had earned two first-place combined victories.
It was, said French Coach Jean Bé-ranger, "Annie's big year." He was right. The secret is not in specializing and winning an occasional first, as girls will do, but in racing everybody ragged by always finishing high in the order and piling up points. And Annie was doing all that. The week before the Kandahar, Annie's second-place downhill charge had pushed her ahead of Austria's Gertrud Gabl, 101 points to 90, and Famose was now clearly picking up the pace. The next closest girl was West Germany's Rosi Mittermaier, with 71 and a long way to go.
February 10, 1969
The Kandahar course starts at the top of Austria—where a skier could take off in any direction, including Switzerland—and plunges along a 2,086-foot vertical drop roughly toward the railroad tracks in downtown St. Anton. If it is not the toughest downhill run in Europe, that honor going to the Hahnenkamm in Kitzb√ºhel, it looked like the toughest when all the girls assembled on top in a snowstorm last Thursday for the nonstop training run. This is a traditional ski-racing event designed to 1) let the racers study the course at speed and 2) see if everybody can really make it to the bottom. Annie, first out of the gate at precisely 11 a.m., did not.
Sailing off three high, tough turns, down a wall called Oberer B√§rensprung, which means something awful like Upper Bear Jump, little Annie swung into what should have been a slow section—but going, as she likes to do, like the mini-express to Munich. She dug a ski tip into the soft snow and tumbled. She bounced for 90 feet. It was all over in an instant: both skis popped off, but too late. She had broken her left leg just above the boot line and had badly torn her Achilles' tendon. Tobogganed to the bottom, she was loaded into an ambulance to Zurich and then flown to the Jouvenet Clinic in Paris. But before she left she told Michel Clare of France's sports daily, L'Equipe, "I don't understand at all what happened to me. I was going fast, very fast. I was in the middle of the run in a passage requiring considerable technique but which had caused me no problems during the training. I even liked this passage. I must have been thrown off-balance, and I felt myself hurled forward. It hurt me badly. Very badly. It is not possible. I'm going to wake up and find this was a nightmare."
It was worse than that when the word got around. The Paris daily, L'Aurore, called it "catastrophic for the French women's team," and Le Monde lamented the loss of the country's best woman skier, the one with a good chance to become the first French woman to win the World Cup. Annie's teammates all cried. Girl skiers cry a lot. Coach Béranger finally had to bark at them and order them back to their rooms.
With little Annie out of it, the event that followed on Friday was anticlimactic—but it showed that this season's cup race will still be hot when the competition moves to the U.S. next month. Austria's Olga Pall, Olympic downhill champion last year, flashed down the course first. Isabelle Mir of France was second, and another Austrian, Wiltrud Drexel, was third. In Saturday's slalom (which was not a World Cup race), Gabl beat them all. And while Annie still technically held more points than anybody else, there was Gabl, now with 93, Drexel with 76 and the Austrian team with the lead.
After the downhill, winner Pall stood in the lobby of the old Hotel Arlberg and opened a telegram from Paris. "Bravo," it said, "Annie Famose." And Olga cried. People all around the lobby cried. "I'm sure that Annie would have won the cup," said Pall. "It is so sad that she had this bad fall. I still don't know whether I can win it."
That was enough of that. Austrian girls' Coach Karl Kahr, who was starting to feel a little like Louisa May Alcott, made them all stop crying and took the more practical view. "Gabl must be the World Cup favorite now," he said flatly. "And our Drexel could win it, too. We regret that Gabl got back to the top because of Annie's fall." Across town, Kiki Cutter, closest American girl, in sixth place with 59 points, put in one more bid to become Annie's understudy. "I have to keep on thinking that I can win the cup," she said.
Then the ski circus packed up for the next town, but without Annie. She'll be back, of course. She acknowledged that she knew everybody was sorry about what happened. But—"Bah," she said. "We all know very well there are risks in skiing. If you want to win a race, you have to ski as fast in training as in competition. We know that accidents are part of the game. You have to allow for such things. If not, you might as well stay home and sew. It's less dangerous."