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AUSTRIA STORMS THE HILL

Feb. 25, 1980
Feb. 25, 1980

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Feb. 25, 1980

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AUSTRIA STORMS THE HILL

By William Oscar Johnson

In the wee hours of Valentine's Day morning, Leonhard Stock woke from an uneasy sleep, rose from his bed and went to the window of his room overlooking Mirror Lake. A thick curtain of snow was falling. Stock smiled as he watched it and said to himself, "These are just the right conditions for Leonhard Stock." He returned to bed, and as he lay there, in his mind he skied again and again over each turn, each icy precipice, each spine-jarring bump of the 3,009-meter men's Olympic downhill course on Whiteface Mountain. At last Stock closed his eyes and sighed happily, thinking, "This race is definitely going to be mine."

This is an article from the Feb. 25, 1980 issue Original Layout

A day later Stock was once again awake in the early hours of the morning, this time reveling in the victory he had foreseen. At the lavish Austria Haus pavilion on Lake Placid's Saranac Avenue, the jubilant 21-year-old Stock sprayed champagne on friends and teammates, kissed a couple dozen pretty hostesses, not to mention three burly yodelers from a Tyrolean band, and then laughed and blushed as his euphoric countrymen serenaded him with the traditional Teutonic song of celebration: Hoch soil er leben, hoch soil er leben, dreimal hoch ("He should live high, he should live high, three times high").

Tall, rawboned, blue-eyed, with a grand beak of a nose, Stock basked in a glow of goodwill that was as golden as his medal. And that glow will endure. His victory is worth considerably more than $100,000 a year for Lord knows how long and assures him of a niche in the pantheon of Austria's downhill champions in which Toni Sailer, Egon Zimmermann, Karl Schranz and Franz Klammer, who couldn't ski fast enough to make the team this time around, are enshrined.

Stock was brought to Lake Placid as an alternate, the fifth member of an Austrian downhill squad that was more imposing than any assembled before. Only four Austrians could be entered in the Olympics, and as recently as December, Stock had fallen and suffered torn right-knee ligaments and an agonizing tear in his right shoulder. Miraculously, in mid-January, Stock finished fifth in the very tough Lauberhorn downhill at Wengen, Switzerland. Karl Kahr, Austria's celebrated Downhill Charlie and coach of his country's downhillers, said last week, "Thank God he got that fifth place—otherwise, we couldn't have taken him to the Olympics at all."

But whether Stock went to Lake Placid or not, the understanding from the start was that he was the fifth man behind Peter Wirnsberger, Sepp Walcher, Werner Grissmann and Harti Weirather. Indeed, the five racers had met in Salzburg early this month and voted four to one—Stock the obvious dissenter—that he would remain on the bench unless sickness or injury to one of the top four or a divinely inspired performance by Stock himself in training runs intervened. The rest, of course, is history. Stock did produce some truly remarkable runs, and on Feb. 11 Kahr and Professor Udo Albl, chief of the Alpine team, reversed their decision that the original four would automatically compete. They decided that Stock and Weirather were definitely on the team, but that the other three would be rejudged on the basis of their training times. Grissmann, Wirnsberger (winner of the World Cup downhill on Whiteface in 1979) and Walcher (the 1978 FIS world champion) were outraged. Kahr wavered again, letting it be known some hours later that all five would be subject to qualifying competition, but then he was overruled by Albl: the three would have to qualify; Stock and Weirather had made the team.

As it turned out, Walcher was dropped. He was understandably furious, but Stock's training times were so spectacular—twice No. 1 in the whole field—that keeping him off the team would have created a scandal.

After the snow, race morning was partly overcast, and the course had been covered with a fluffy six-inch blanket. But 200 volunteers moved in during the early-morning hours to sweep most of the new stuff off. Because of its consistency, new-fallen snow causes extra friction and makes speeding skiers feel as if they're hitting the brakes whenever they go through a patch of it. Once the course was swept, it was in magnificent condition, thanks to a solid base of denser—and therefore faster—man-made snow that had been put down by the Lake Placid organizers in the weeks before the Games. It was perfect for all the racers. Stock expected to benefit personally from the series of tight turns on the horrendously steep Sno Field section at the top of the run. Stock's specialty is the giant slalom, and those Sno Field gates were set almost identically to those of a good GS course.

Stock shot across this hair-raising terrain with a controlled bravado that sent him rocketing toward the lower part of the course with a splendid first interval time of 37.01 seconds, .3 of a second better than anyone else in the field of 47. His style is so confident, his attack so strong that Harald Schoenhaar, the U.S. men's coach, would say later, "When I saw Stock ski by me up there, I knew he wasn't going to be beaten." Stock's second interval of 1:13.43 was best by four-tenths of a second, and his winning time—1:45.50—put him a comfortable .62 ahead of the silver medalist, teammate Wirnsberger, 21.

Because Stock had been the ninth skier to make his run, he had to sweat it out at the bottom after he finished. He kept a tense watch on the mountain, occasionally cradling his head in his arm. When the last of the best had finished, he broke into a radiant grin and raised his ski poles in triumph. But before Stock dived into the eager crowd of reporters and spectators, he grabbed a walkie-talkie from an Austrian coach and called Kahr, who was still far up the mountain at the start shack. "Charlie, I thank you for everything," said Stock. Recalling this moment, tough old Downhill Charlie said, "That has never happened to me before, and I have had many Olympic and world championship winners in my care."

There were other, though certainly lesser, triumphs. Steve Podborski, 22, put together a strong but typically risk-filled run to finish in 1:46.62 and win the bronze medal—the first Olympic ski racing medal ever for a Canadian man. A member of the wild-charging Canadian downhill team known as the Kamikaze Kanadians, Podborski and his comrades had patterned their approach to racing after the magnificent, maniacal run that Klammer made for the gold medal in 1976. Podborski got his medal, but his teammate Ken Read, who stunningly won the prestigious Hahnenkamm in Austria last month, was barely 15 seconds into the race before he suffered heartbreakingly bad luck: the binding on his uphill ski snapped open as he swung strong through the tough turns on the top of Sno Field, sending him flying into a snow fence—and Olympic oblivion.

Americans escaped oblivion with a rather surprising performance by Pete Patterson, 23, of Sun Valley, Idaho, who produced his best downhill run ever. He finished fifth, which tied the finest Olympic downhill finish by an American male—Bill Beck in 1952. As he said with a slightly dazzled look of triumph, "Hey, this is the best race I ever ran. I'm glad it happened here."

And that, too, is what Stock will be saying—for years to come. He is a mountain farmer's son from the village of Finkenberg in the Ziller Valley of the Alps, a rustic sort of fellow whom Kahr calls "a loose bird, very relaxed, very uncomplicated." Stock is "a boy who always loves to go home," says Downhill Charlie. Ah, yes, and never has young Stock enjoyed a homecoming as much as he will the one he'll get when he returns to Finkenberg after the Valentine's Day miracle on Whiteface Mountain. For in a few short minutes, he was transformed from a gawky young man who'd never won a World Cup downhill to an Olympic paragon—a bona fide member of the Austrian pantheon. As Stock said with a mountain man's simplicity, "I'm glad things turned out the way they did."

For Austria, the rustic prince was just the beginning. Act II of the downhill featured the queen. And when you are a queen, you simply ask and you shall receive. Thus it was that on Sunday, Annemarie Moser-Pröll, the mightiest female ski racer of all time, was delivered a suit of pure white long Johns at the still-dark hour of 6:30 a.m. The queen had been worried that the official navy-blue Olympic-issue underwear might show through the white material of her racing suit.

Something over five hours later, Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll, 26, could savor one of the great triumphs of the Games. In a picture-perfect run on a 2,698-meter downhill course that was both icy and windy—and thus about as nasty as anything Whiteface can offer—she won the first Olympic gold medal of her 12-year racing career. She won it by the margin of .7 of a second, more than comfortable in a sport of split seconds. She won it by beating her old nemesis—and, of late, frequent conqueror—Marie-Theres Nadig of Switzerland. And she looked absolutely smashing for the finish-line victory pictures in her white suit with bright red piping—with nary a trace of blue showing.

Moser-Pröll had been aiming for this race for a long time. "I have already achieved everything else," she had said. "All I want is to be Olympic champion. I don't care anymore about the World Cup. I already have six of them at home. I have wanted to win this medal since Sapporo." It was in Sapporo in 1972 that Annemarie, even at the tender age of 18 the heavy favorite in her events, suffered not one, but two upset losses to Nadig, finishing second in both the downhill and the giant slalom. In 1976 Moser-Pröll did not compete at Innsbruck.

The Whiteface race would almost certainly be her last appearance in an Olympic downhill. To prepare for it, she had sacrificed a series of World Cup victories to Nadig, winning only one of the season's seven downhills. Her coach, Alois Bumberger, explained, "Annemarie was gradually building up through the winter. Nadig was very strong in December, but then she kept getting weaker. You cannot keep in top form for three months." In the week and a half before the Austrians came to the U.S. for the Games, Moser-Pröll did not train on skis. Instead she went to her home in the Alpine hamlet of Kleinarl and made only pleasure runs. However, each day of her "vacation" she ran 13 up-and-down miles in deep snow.

Now she was ready to attack White-face. During training runs, Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll was breathtaking, once beating the field by an improbable three seconds. After that one, she said to Bumberger, "Now I know I will get Nadig for sure." Beyond the runs, there was no training. She spent her time off studying videotapes of her training descents, occasionally visiting—never overnight—her husband, Herbert, at the condominium he and 14 Kleinarl fans had rented in Lake Placid and putting in endless hours of tiny cross-stitch needlework on a table-cloth. The night before the race, Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll and her teammates ordered pizzas from Mr. Mike's on Main Street—thus dined the queen on the eve of her greatest conquest. She was in bed by 9 p.m., up at 6:30 to receive her underwear and arrived at the start shack with Bumberger at 10:30—the first of the field of 28 racers to get there.

Sunday dawned horrendously cold—15 below—and as they awaited the start, Bumberger rubbed Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll's knees to keep them from going numb and warmed the inside of her boots with a hair drier. Bumberger skied part way down the course and, just before her start, spoke to Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll by walkie-talkie, "Everything is on the line today." She replied, "No need to tell me."

She burst from the gate with what looked like a smile and produced one of the smoothest, strongest downhill runs ever by a woman. Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll held her arms to her sides, clamping them against her poles and staying locked in a tuck even on her turns. So splendid is her strength and control that often on key turns she will ski a line that is as much as three or four feet closer to the gates than other—merely mortal—females. Her first interval was a stunning 37.19, .15 of a second better than any of the five who had gone before her. Her second interval was 1:05.61, .76 better than the runner-up, Liechtenstein's Hanni Wenzel, and she flashed across the finish line in 1:37.52.

Still, she couldn't yet be sure she had won. Nadig was coming down three racers later. Hers was a fine run, but she was viciously slammed by a blast of wind halfway down. It shoved her so hard that she would say, "I almost went into a fence. It was not a fair competition because of the wind. Some had gusts and some didn't. They shouldn't have started under these conditions." Without that buffeting, Nadig might have won the silver instead of bronze, but there was no one on the mountain who could beat the queen on her day.

The bright-eyed young American, Heidi Preuss, 18, produced an inspired run and finished a splendid fourth. But Minnesota's Cindy Nelson, 24, the 1976 bronze medalist, was understandably displeased with her seventh-place finish.

Once it became clear that no one would surpass Moser-Pröll, the rollicking bunch from Kleinarl flattened out the fence in front of them, ran madly to Annemarie, lifted their heroine high against the bright sky and began passing her from shoulder to shoulder. And as the beaming champion bobbed above them, they sang over and over: "Immer wieder, immer wieder, immer wieder, Moser-Pröll" ("Again, and again, and again, Moser-Pröll").

PHOTOThe odd man out who counted himself in, Stock slams down Whiteface to the first Austrian gold.PHOTOMoser-Pröll exults over completing the sweep.PHOTOFor the jubilant Stock, victory means a spot in the downhillers' pantheon and a six-figure income.THREE PHOTOSHurtling out of control after bumping a gate, American downhiller Karl Anderson crashes into a snow fence situated to keep runaway skiers out of the forest and then sits up, disgusted but undamaged.TWO ILLUSTRATIONS