Not since Jean-Claude Killy of 1968, or before that Toni Sailer way back in 1956, has a single star so dazzled the firmament of world class ski racing. And not since anyone—ever—has one woman ski racer so dominated her sport.
There she is: broad-beamed and strong across the back, wearing the tight, bright aqua racing suit of this season's sensational Austrian national team. It is a wet day in Alaska, a drizzle is falling intermittently on Mount Alyeska outside Anchorage and the young lady has missed a gate about halfway down a giant slalom course—a run in which she needed only to finish eighth in order to guarantee her third consecutive combined World Cup title with another record accumulation of points. But Annemarie Proell, 19, does not even know how to finish safely in eighth place.
So now she is standing on the damp hill past the finish line, relaxed and chuckling with her Austrian mates, smoking a cigarette in open defiance of all the precepts of fitness, and she does not seem the slightest bit angry about her disqualification.
She shrugs. "I caught an edge on the wet snow," she says. "I might have won otherwise. I probably would have."
March 26, 1973
True enough. Annemarie Proell does not try for anything but first. And it all figures. She is a mountain farmer's daughter, used to long hours of hard work as a child, carrying firewood and cranking the creaky reel to haul haybales up steep pasture slopes to the barn. She is accustomed to simple disciplines and demanding regimens. She is the sixth of eight children and the family was poor.
And even here, in the mountains of Alaska, she is an Austrian farmer's daughter. Her face is round and magnificently freckled. It is a face that is girlish enough, particularly with the snub nose, the apple-strudel cheeks, blue eyes, the tumbled red hair which could as well be full of Salzburg hayseed as near-Arctic snow. When she chooses to smile, she has a fresh and winsome grin, open as an Alpine meadow. But make no mistake, there is regal steel behind all of this, an openly aggressive drive to keep winning, to set records that will keep her status as the Iron Queen of skiing for some time to come, perhaps all time to come.
No one has come even close to Proell this season in the competition for the overall World Cup championship. In an almost scornful display of superiority she swept all eight of the women's downhill races. No one—not Killy, not Karl Schranz—ever totally monopolized every event in any of the three World Cup disciplines, the slalom, giant slalom or downhill. In early February, after Proell had unleashed her cannonball-juggernaut tuck to score her eighth consecutive downhill triumph at St. Moritz, which will be the site of the 1974 FIS World Championships, she said with a cool and confident air: "If I had lost here, it would have been very bad for me. Now next year, I will win the world championship on this course."
On this course—or on almost any other. For there has come to be a sense of inevitability about the victories of Annemarie Proell, an inevitability that has not gone unnoticed by her intimidated contemporaries. Jacqueline Rouvier of France, once considered one of Annemarie's nearest rivals, sighed in resignation not long ago: "La Proell is my fate." And the French coach, Gaston Perrot, spoke with brave and quiet fatalism: "There is only one way to beat Mile. Proell. Knock her over the head before she takes off."
So it would seem. This World Cup season Proell has won 11 races, three giant slaloms in addition to the now famed eight straight downhills. What? No slaloms? Well, it is true. This more delicate event has not been to Annemarie's liking in 1973. Given the arrogance of her attack and the ferocity of her style, it is not surprising that she has fallen almost every time. There are those who say her proportions—she is 5'6" and weighs 150 pounds—are the problem. But that is not exactly true. The difficulty is her daring philosophy of supremacy. "I risk as much as possible," she says. "I dislike easy runs where one has time to think. Thinking is bad." Proell says it was "thinking" that caused her to fail so surprisingly at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo. She was favored to win at least two and possibly three gold medals, but wound up the Games with a mere two silvers. She says, "There was confusion about the team and about Karl Schranz being left out by the Olympic Committee. I was thinking about many other things. I was not concentrating on the races." As for Switzerland's Marie-Theres Nadig, who captured the Sapporo downhill and giant slalom, Annemarie shrugs, "She hasn't won a single World Cup race this year."
And what is ahead? "I will race next year, for certain. Then I do not know what I will do. I like to race cars. I do not know how to cook. I would probably not become a hausfrau if I quit racing." Does that mean she might quit ski racing—hausfrau or no hausfrau—before 1976, the year the Winter Games will be held in her own backyard, Innsbruck, Austria? "Yes, I do not know if I will race in 1976. I do not know if I will want to." She paused a moment and raised her freckled face to the Alaska rain. "There has been pressure, of course, from officials at home for me to stay on the national team until after the Olympics."
Whatever her decision about 1976, the dashing Proell is not easy to figure. She is a mad and exuberant car driver, such a fervent admirer of Jackie Stewart and the late Jochen Rindt that she has glued their photographs to one of her racing helmets. On the same precipitous roads where she once skidded along on skis hand-whittled by her father, she now careens along at speeds over 100 mph in her hopped-up black and gold Ford Capri.
For a long time Proell had a metal plaque fastened to the Capri's dashboard stamped with the words NEVER FORGET SAPPORO. She has not forgotten. Last week in Naeba, Japan the World Cup ski racing season was moving toward its end. In the midst of a bewildering month-long rush of marathon plane flights and time-zone changes that threw them over some 20,000 miles in four weeks, tired young racers were trying to remember where they were and whether it was the hour for dinner or for dawn. "Concentration toward the end of the racing season is difficult," Annemarie sighed. Then, with a pout of boredom, she added: "In fact, I don't like to travel." On the slalom course she traveled about as expected—in typical full attack she missed a gate halfway down the second run. And while one of the polite Japanese spectators murmured, "She skis just like a man," the irritated champ swung one ski pole and whacked the offending gate. In the giant slalom she concentrated just enough to finish third behind a surprising victory by Vermont's Marilyn Cochran. So much for winning margins: Annemarie's World Cup points in Japan put her year's total out of sight. After Naeba there was but one race left, in Heavenly Valley, Calif.
Proell now has a lifetime record that no one has ever approached. She has won 27 World Cup races in her career. The next best is Killy, who won 18.
Except for Proell, the 1973 World Cup season might have been remembered only for the lackluster quality of its field and the anonymity of its competitors. It is true that the No. 1 male skier was, once more, Gustav Th√∂ni, the bland and well-scrubbed young Italian slalom expert. A gentle and mild fellow, though a polished racer. Th√∂ni held a "modest lead for the combined World Cup trophy during the final weeks of the season. He did nothing in Alaska or Japan to advance his cause. If he does manage to top the field by performing well on the hills of Heavenly Valley, it will be his third consecutive year as overall World Cup champion.
Yet his triumph would contain none of the dynamics, none of the brilliant superiority displayed by Proell. This is the year that the French men's team was rattled by a dispute between racers and coaches, a personality clash that temporarily sent such perennial high rollers as Henri Duvillard, Jean-No√´l Augert and Roger Rossat-Mignod to the showers in February. Since that mutiny, there has been little behind Th√∂ni but a rush of faceless Austrians, the David Zwillings, Hansi Hinterseers, Franz Klammers.
On their performances, plus those of Proell and her women teammates—Monika Kaserer, Ingrid Gfoelner, Wiltrud Drexel and Irmgard Lukasser—the Austrians have moved easily into first place in the Nation's Cup competition. In truth, the Austrian team—under the patient leadership of the famed Toni Sailer himself, winner of three gold medals in the 1956 Olympic Games—was well in the lead long before the French destroyed themselves.
By contrast, the U.S. team was struggling through one of its worst seasons. Both chief coaches, Hank Tauber and Willy Schaeffler, were unceremoniously released by the U.S. Ski Association and, as the year waffled to an end, the new U.S. coach turned out to be Gordon (Mickey) Cochran, the electrical engineer who taught his children for years in their backyard before they became the bulwark of the American team.
Though it is far off, one may well expect that the Games of '76 in Innsbruck will be an Austrian hometown show, one that will rival Killy's triple-gold showing at Grenoble. By then, there may well be gold in them thar Zwillings, Hinterseers and Klammers. And surely there ought to be gold in Proell. She won't forget Sapporo.