The slopes sparkled with all sorts of new heroes and heroines as fresh talent kept coming down the jagged trails of northern Italy. There were a couple of relative strangers, from Switzerland and, of all places, Australia. There was a mini-teen-age rebel from Canada. But when the world championship of Alpine ski racing was all over, there stood a couple of old men we have long known. And there stood America—finally—with something gold to show for the season.
It was a time, mainly, for Billy Kidd and Karl Schranz, a couple of household names where speeding down mountains is concerned. It was Kidd and Schranz—who may now explore a whole new world of pro ski racing—who stood up to the pressures, the suspense and those newcomers and proved, among other things, that all racers do not peak just as soon as they are taken off pureed baby food.
What an old racer can do on skis, old being 26 in this case, was best exemplified by Kidd, whose ankle throbbed, whose back ached so badly that he raced in a corset, who was homesick for his bathtub Porsche and whose memories of past misfortunes were outlandishly vivid. Eight seasons he had carved away on the world circuit, but a gold medal was always out there somewhere a second or two beyond his reach. He was America's premier racer, but an American spotlighted only occasionally by a silver or a bronze. And it was a bronze again as the 1970 FIS began, with Kidd spiraling to a third place in the slalom.
The medal was wonderful, but the results of that opening race set in motion statistics that were far more important. Next came his 15th place in the giant slalom. Then, when a lot of the top guys crashed, suddenly, almost horrifyingly—because Americans have learned to be a pessimistic group in considerations of gold hardware—there loomed Kidd as one of the favorites for the combined championship. To win the combined, once the most treasured of all the medals, a skier must first stand up in all three events; then he must stand up faster than anyone else.
February 23, 1970
History will say that Billy Kidd won the first U.S. men's gold medal because he buried France's Patrick Russel—his nearest rival and the combined point leader after two events—by eight seconds in the downhill. It was perhaps the best downhill ever run in the world championship by an American. But Kidd did not just go for the combined, he went for the race. He finished tied for fifth, but his time was 2:25.52—less than a second away from the bouncing, happy Swiss, Bernhard Russi, who somehow managed to win.
As Kidd had said the evening before the most important race of his life, "If I go for the downhill, the combined will take care of itself. If I try to worry about the gold, well, you know what's happened before."
Kidd had four days and nights to contemplate the downhill—and his future as a professional. He had completed the giant slalom on Tuesday and it would be Sunday before the last and most dangerous race. During this period he side-slipped the course once and skied it six times. He doctored his skis and then kept them guarded, as if he feared that some James Bondian creature from the Russel camp would steal into his room and explode them. Waxing was to be very important to the race.
America's rooters, meanwhile, tried hard to figure a way for Billy to win the combined gold without going up the lift. They couldn't help celebrating a little when Switzerland's Dumeng Giovanoli, who had a chance, was injured in downhill training and removed from contention. No hard feelings, Dumeng, old buddy, but you Swiss have been up to your Jungfrau in gold medals for years and we've never had one.
Then came the worries about condition. Early in the week Kidd had said the 2‚Öì-mile course was pretty much to his liking, just technical and icy enough to suit the more experienced downhillers but not so long and grueling and spaced with so many flats that only the brutes would have a chance.
All sorts of talk circulated through Val Gardena about the downhill training. Schranz was eating up the course. Malcolm Milne, the Australian, also looked good. Henri Duvillard, the best Frenchman, didn't look good. Schranz was two seconds better than anybody. Patrick Russel was slow, a second out. Two seconds out. He fell three times. He fell four times. "It's all a con," said Kidd. "They're trying to get me to cool it."
Then came the race. Of course, Kidd didn't really cool anyone but Russel. But briefly, it looked as if he might even take a medal in the downhill itself. Up on the scoreboard with only a few racers left as a threat, he ranked third behind a big Austrian newcomer, Karl Cordin, and Schranz. But then came Russi and then came the likable Australian, Milne, who had been training with the French. Russi barely edged Cordin, and Milne, who vowed he would either crash, which he usually does, or get a medal, barely nipped Schranz for third.
That evening, with a gold and bronze to dangle around his neck from this championship and four medals for his career (he also won a silver in the slalom and a bronze in the combined at Innsbruck), it was necessary for Kidd to make the decision that might affect the entire sport. He would turn pro, he said, and barge right onto a professional circuit now being organized. Open racing had to come, he felt, as open tennis had come. This would help. He would lead and he expected others, like Schranz, to follow. Karl said he might. Like Kidd, he would certainly leave the amateur circuit at last, having rescued his country again from what might have been the biggest disaster since Avery Brundage tried to take the trade names off the skis at Grenoble.
The Austrians had got off to their most dreadful start ever in the men's slalom, and one could envision Austrian instructors all over the world not showing up to meet their beginner classes after they received the news. In the opening event no Austrian finished the race. Schranz and Harald Rofner fell, Heini Messner missed a gate and Herbert Huber, who had won a silver at Grenoble, never even started.
But good old Schranz, who is sort of the Sam Snead of ski racing, brought them back all right, as he has so often done. Schranz was simply magnificent in about the most tiring and rugged giant slalom race the world championship has ever staged. Both runs were as long as the average downhill—better than two minutes—and Schranz had the fastest time in both, while a teammate, Werner Bleiner, followed right after him.
As Karl won that race a lot of historical footnotes trailed behind him. He had now won medals in FIS meets eight years apart. He had won, probably, the 100th or so race of his 14-year career. Twice as many as anyone else, at least. Two rooms of his family hotel in St. Anton overflowed with trophies. He had been a marvel and he knew why: "'I win because I like it better than anyone else," he said. "I love training. Soccer, tennis, running. I don't drink, smoke or eat spaghetti. I've never felt bad a day in my life. When I win I go to bed at 9 o'clock and everyone else celebrates. All I ever wanted to be was a ski racer and I am very happy."
So were an awful lot of young girls. It seems that ever since the Goitschel sisters emerged a few years ago the French have had a habit of dominating the ladies' races. Where they keep coming from—these coiled little bundles of freckles and speed—only the government may know. But they keep coming. Three new stars—Ingrid Lafforgue, Mich√®le Jacot and Francoise Macchi—teamed up with a couple of old battlers, Isabelle Mir and Florence Steurer, to capture no fewer than seven of the 12 medals available in Italy. It was all very repetitious. The French girls would ski down, start hugging and then get swept away to open-air radio and television booths while photographers climbed on top of each other, at times forming a human mountain large enough to set a few slalom gates on.
The imposing box score on the French girls showed that Lafforgue and Jacot were one-three in the slalom, Mir was second in the downhill, Lafforgue and Macchi were two-three in the giant slalom and Jacot and Steurer were one-two in combined. They very nearly swept everything, in fact. Lafforgue not only blazed to about a two-second victory in the slalom, she was only .07 of a second out of first in the giant slalom, while Mir was half a second behind Anneroesli Zryd, the Swiss, in a downhill that saw only those two girls crack two minutes.
But in the wake of another French landslide it could happily be reported that the only other nation to claim two medals in the girls' events was the U.S. While our veterans, our shopworn old ladies of from 18 to 20 years, who had experience, which is to say our Judy Nagels, Kiki Cutters and Karen Budges, were rather disappointing, we were saved by two bright newcomers, the Sisters Cochran.
Although they were in the same age bracket, they had never been in world-championship starting gates before and no one knew exactly how they might take to the pressure. They were, of course, just swell.
Barbara, who is younger at 19, smaller, has longer blonde hair and weeps less frequently at finish lines than Marilyn, 20, skied a nifty slalom down a couple of steep, icy courses and got a silver behind Ingrid Lafforgue. Meanwhile, Marilyn bagged a bronze in combined by finishing sixth in both slalom and giant slalom and ninth in downhill. It marked the first time since 1948 that an American girl had won a combined medal, Gretchen Fraser having done it at St. Moritz. Aside from taking a medal, it was simply nice to see someone from the U.S. stand up in three races.
Aside from Judy Nagel's fifth in the slalom, no other American lasses were to be noticed. So Barbara and Marilyn bore down and kept the hundred or so U.S. tourists in the valley interested with their second and sixth in slalom, their sixth and ninth in giant slalom, their ninth and 21st in downhill and their third and fourth in combined. They obviously did not provide as much all-out delirious fun for their nation as the French girls did, but at least the Cochrans let the world know that girl skiing is still alive and struggling in America.
Why we never seem to have a Betsy Clifford was a question that U.S. fans will have to go on asking, and not just in the wood-carved hamlets of Selva, St. Cristina and Ortisei, which were the three plates of pasta that linked Val Gardena in the white Dolomites. Betsy Clifford is the 16-year-old Canadian rowdy who already has a gold medal now while we keep awaiting the reincarnation of Andrea Mead Lawrence.
Maybe our girls ought to switch to smoking cigarettes and just trying to go fast, like this Betsy Clifford, instead of brooding on concentration and beautiful, slow turns. Betsy doesn't really smoke anymore. She gave it up last year at 15. Short, spunky, round, green-eyed, with long flowing hair and dabs of fluorescent blue eye shadow on her lids, Betsy just went out and beat everybody in the giant slalom with the same tigerish drive that Nancy Greene once had.
In the final analysis, of course, it was Kidd who stole the show. He had solved the great American uniform dilemma—the team never got any because, apparently, somebody forgot to pick up the phone. But Billy Kidd saw that they all got starred-and-striped sweaters to race in. And as the world combined champion he took a rather snobbish place in the sport, right there with Jean-Claude, Stein, Toni—all of those others who had won it.
Not a very likely location to have looked for an American ski racer before, but then who could have known that Billy Kidd would never stop trying until it happened?