As startling as this is going to sound, there were two gangs of kids last week who made news without destroying a campus, kicking a cop or lighting up a stick of pot. Strange kids. What they did do was stand off an invasion of the best European athletes in a couple of tough sports. One of them was Billy Kidd (opposite), an economics major out of Vermont, who laced up a badly wrenched left ankle and won a World Cup slalom race after everybody had written him off. Another was Tim Wood, 20, a prelaw student, who laced up and won the world figure skating title with a performance that rendered adherents of that sport speechless.
And as if that were not enough, there were all the girls in the gangs, this great gaggle of tender youngsters who did not win much of anything—but who would not quit.
All these things happened in a sort of winter carnival out West. The World Figure Skating Championships were fought out against the gold and brocade backdrop of the old Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs, and the World Cup ski circuit crossed the Atlantic after 2½ months of European competitions and moved into Squaw Valley, Calif., which has been so buried by Sierra storms that it is now the world's biggest snowbank. Both events carry an Olympic prestige in this off year and, for both, the rest of the world had sent its toughest competitors to give us our lumps.
In skating, the main job was to find new champions to replace American Peggy Fleming and Wolfgang Schwartz of Austria, both of whom had turned professional after winning the Olympics. In skiing, the push is still on to find out who can come closest to Austria's Karl Schranz, who has the men's World Cup locked up, or to overtake Austria's Gertrud Gabl, who is leading the girls after 14 races.
In Colorado Springs, the foreign legion was headed by Gaby Seyfert, 20, from a town called Karl-Marx-Stadt in East Germany. Gaby was so mad when she lost to Peggy Fleming at the Olympics that she went right home and lost 35 pounds. She has also been practicing her skating, and now, slim and stunning, her honey-blonde hair piled up in non-Communist curls, she was ready. That was clear right from the first interview.
Reporter: "Do you think you could beat Peggy if she were still competing this year?"
Gaby: "Peggy who?"
The two other girls who might have had a chance at the title were out of it. European runner-up Hana Maskova, a lovely Czech, had withdrawn with a wrenched back, and Karen Magnussen, a Canadian, had leg injuries. Who among skating's junior-miss set could muster the assurance to challenge Gaby? Well, there were two U.S. teen-agers who wanted a run at her.
"I'm going to put a bunch of tough stuff into my program—I like to show the judges some real content," said Janet Lynn. And, "This world competition really psychs me up. Boy, I'm ready," said Julie Holmes.
Funny thing, but they hardly seemed like the girls for the job. Janet is 15 years old, was the youngest girl on the U.S. team at Grenoble and looks as though she may be majoring in gamine. She comes on about waist-high, wearing a fluffy little blonde haircut and big eyes, but still not ready to have what is politely called a figure. And Julie Holmes, at 17, serves up green eyes, dark hair and dimples, with a fragile look that will one day blow men's minds. Fragile they may look, but beneath all this both are made of pure steel.
Janet emerged from recent competition as both U.S. and North American champion. Julie was just .05 of a point off the pace to win second in the U.S. meet. Both of them skate routines full of the sort of high-flying, spinning, twisting things that scare nonskaters to death. Last Thursday night it was up to them, to take on Gaby.
Figure skating is split up the competitive middle. First the skaters must run through a series of compulsory maneuvers to show that they know an inside edge from their left ear. The arduous and exacting school figures count for half their score. Then there is a swinging ender, in which competitors risk everything on a series of grand jumps and leaps. Gaby, wearing a costume the color of a lime Popsicle, glided into the finale, with a strong edge on the Americans.
Then, halfway through her free-skating routine, coming off the No. 4 turn and down the straightaway—pow!—Gaby was suddenly bouncing on her backside, looking a lot more startled than she had at any time since she had come to town, as though her title might actually be at stake. She got up, turned on a sort of stunned, automatic smile and finished fast. Julie and Janet, smiling sweetly, came on, in fourth and fifth spots in the schools, and did their own thing. And well. Except that Janet popped out of her double lutz, which is not as sexy as it sounds. She had come off the ice in what was to be two turns, high in the air, and made only one. Julie, the only girl in world competition who can do a little meanie called a double inside axel—a leap so difficult that most girls will not try it—finished to a standing ovation. Then everyone waited for the scores.
Seyfert won, naturally—what is a little pratfall among us international judges?—and got the gold medal. Austria's Beatrix Schuba was next; a Hungarian, Zsuzsa Almassy, was third. But there, in fourth and fifth spots, close enough to be considered real world threats at last, were Julie and Janet.
They did what all girls do: Janet cried just a little, then blew her nose, ate a cough drop and put on a brave smile for everyone. Julie shrugged gracefully inside her hot-pink costume and said, "I'm going to a party tonight. I'm going to change into my jeans and T shirt and be real ugly for a while."
The next night Tim Wood shook the Europeans down to their outside edges, winning the gold medal with a series of jumps, spins, flying, twisting things that looked like he might have made them up in midair, and landed with three perfect scores, which judges do not ordinarily award. "Now, then," he said, sitting down and kicking off his skates. "What am I going to do now that I'm the new world champion? Well, first thing I'm going to do is go skiing, that's what. If I break a leg now it won't matter."
But if it did not matter too much to winner Wood, it mattered a great deal across the Rockies in Squaw Valley. There, another crew of young men and another stand of eager young girls were fighting off the Europeans on another sort of stage.
Of all the times for this to happen, this was the year of the big snow at Squaw Valley. National Park Superintendent Dick Johnson pointed out the area has 375.6 inches so far this season, and when the ski circus came straggling in behind the plows there were 123 inches of snow on the valley floor, more than 500 inches on top of the surrounding peaks and drifts more than 25 feet high on all sides. The chance of holding a World Cup downhill race was suddenly out of the question. People trying to stamp out the course kept dropping right out of sight. Chief course-setter and FIS technical delegate Willy Schaeffler finally pulled everyone back into the lodge, which was a sort of two-story basement somewhere under the snow, and decided they would try a giant slalom instead. The special slaloms, he said, would go on as scheduled.
And, as more snow piled on, hiding the slalom course from the spectators and making it a mystery run for the racers, the competition began. There is every reason to believe that if slalom contests were made up of one run, American girls would be the darlings of the ski world. As it is, however, it takes two runs down a twisty, treacherous slope to make an event, and terrible things always happen to our girls. After the first run down—"You couldn't even see the first gate from the start," said blonde Penny McCoy—the U.S. had five girls right there in the first 10. Then came the second run. Tall, blonde Penny Northrup, 17, who had been in second place after the first run, raced right into a hole up to her kneecaps in the soft snow. Little Barbara Cochran, 18, who had been third the first time down, missed a gate in the storm. So did Kiki Cutter, 19, a tiny waif with a deceptively delicate look. So did 17-year-old Patty Boydston, and finally, when the event was all over, a 17-year-old Washingtonian, Judy Nagel, had salvaged third place. But Austria's Berni Rauter had won it all. "Snow didn't bother me at all," she said. Other girls can grow to hate someone like that.
Just dandy. Since this has been so obviously Austria's big year in ski racing, it was now left up to the U.S. boys to do something. After all, it was our mountain this time.
Enter Billy Kidd. Intense, shaggy-haired Kidd had to be the unlikeliest candidate for a hero's role. In spite of the fact that he is the country's foremost racer when whole, he has suffered a series of injuries that began back in the pre-Grenoble days when he was beating Jean-Claude Killy when nobody else was beating Killy. This season Kidd wrenched the trick ankle so badly, popping muscles and tendons and all sorts of things, that he had to limp off the team after the Hahnenkamm at Kitzb√ºhel and come home for treatment. "I told the doctor I wanted to rejoin the team at Squaw," Kidd said. "And the doctor told me there was no way."
Still, there he was last Friday, with the U.S. ski world's most important ankle wrapped up, ready to race again. Starting 15th in the first run of the slalom, he slashed his way down into third spot, behind Frenchman Alain Penz and teammate Spider Sabich. "I don't know how he did it with all those holes on the course," said Canadian Peter Duncan. For the second run everybody assembled somewhere up in the storm again. And Kidd, this time starting first, came swooshing through the gates, just as though he had two good legs. "I had to stand up and go slowly," he said. Some slowly. His combined time put him in first place and saved the day.
The big tumbling act came Saturday. Schaefner had set a giant-slalom course for the girls that had the customary series of gates snaking routinely down the hill, but then, at the bottom—surprise—a gate that looked off in another direction.
Little Kiki Cutter fell, bounced higher than the lodge and limped down. "You hurt?" Kidd asked her. She was holding a piece of snow to one cheek. "Oh, I just broke my jaw," she said with a shrug that meant she wasn't hurt at all.
Wyoming's Karen Korfanta fell. "I came to the gate and first thing I knew I was on my head," she explained. Everybody fell—six, seven, who knows how many in all. But not Marilyn Cochran, who got through the gate safely, pulled up at the finish line and panted, "How did I do?" She had finished second behind Florence Steurer of France, that's how.
In the windup, the next closest American was Julie Wolcott, 17, in ninth place. And in World Cup points, in spite of the fact that Cochran is ahead in the season's giant-slalom runs, it was still Austria's Gabl leading with an overall 131. The closest American girl is Cutter—but eighth place is a long way back.
Then the men closed out the day, with Reinhard Tritscher—Austria again—winning the giant slalom. Karl Schranz was fourth, not that it mattered to his World Cup future; Sabich was fifth and Kidd sixth.
All told, it had been a wild winter weekend, boys and girls together taking on Europe's best. We had come out of it with a couple of dramatic victories, some near misses, a lot of bumps and bruises and some promise for the future. The kids aren't worried. Well, not the little girls, anyway. Julie and Janet are certain to improve in skating. So, it would seem, are the skiers. Kiki Cutter, with that devastating smile, knows. "The American team is the strongest girl team right now," she said. "Oh, we fall down a lot and have some bad luck. But we really are the best."