Early one recent morning, high on the slope at the sparkling Sun Valley, Idaho ski area, so early the sun hadn't yet crept up the mountain from Ketch-um, Andre Arnold, 25, the tall, dark and handsome Austrian who has been a professional ski racer for four years and world champion for all four, stood alone. He stared down a series of sweeping turns marked by flags. 70-mph S curves on the downhill course he would be racing the next day. He raised his hand as if to give the air a karate chop, and flicked a few sharp movements, a soft whoosh coming from his lips with each flick.
Arnold was rehearsing his lines through the course. He was the first racer on the mountain, and that particular fast and twisty section had been giving him trouble. Such preparation is one of the keys to Arnold's phenomenal success, unprecedented on the 12-year-old World Pro Skiing circuit. He is the only racer to have won the championship more than twice. He has won more money and more races than any skier in the circuit's history. In successfully defending his title for the fourth consecutive time, he won eight of 20 slalom, giant slalom and downhill races, on courses from Sapporo, Japan to his Tyrolean hometown of S‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√álden, Austria.
Though the pro circuit has steadily grown—from six races worth $92,500 in 1969-70 to 22 races worth $700,000 this year—it has suffered more than its share of sneers, most concerning the quality of the circuit's skiers. Racing purists still see the pros as losers and castoffs from World Cup competition or, worse, "B" and "C" team amateur racers who couldn't even make the World Cup. An Andre Arnold, goes the argument, isn't even in the same ball park as an Ingemar Stenmark.
No, he isn't. But that's because pro racing and amateur racing are different games altogether. Foremost among the differences is the fact that the pros actually race each other, while amateurs ski alone, against the clock. In professional slalom and GS races there are two courses, side by side, often so close a racer can hear his opponent breathing and is sprayed by snow chopped by the other's skis as they cut around the gates. Sometimes they even collide.
March 23, 1981
Arnold, like many of the pros, never made it big as an amateur, though he raced on the Austrian ski team and in two World Cups. For one thing, as a teenager he had a knee that couldn't keep up with the rate of growth of the rest of his body. "The knee was so bad it jumped, out by itself," Arnold says. An operation at 17 cured the knee, but there was a year-long recovery period, and the time lost left him far behind his skiing peers.
Another reason for his turning pro: independence. There is often a connection between the pros' limited success as amateurs and their disinclination to take orders from coaches. Many, because they have minds of their own, are considered malcontents on their amateur teams; as pros, they are their own coaches. Of course, mavericks are a dime a dozen; the trick is to find the maverick with self-discipline. Arnold has it. Virtually every move he makes, nine months a year, is part of a plan to win ski races.
Arnold is the son of a house painter in S‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√álden, a ski resort of 2,000, 20 miles from the Italian border. Franz Arnold taught his son the trade and instilled a thriftiness in him that is apparent today. Though the younger Arnold makes a fortune on the pro tour, he spends little and still likes to paint houses in the summer back in S‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√álden. Arnold senior also taught skiing, and Andre was put on skis when he was only four. He hated it. "Mostly, I just liked to run in the woods and jump in the snow," Arnold says.
At 14, Arnold suddenly discovered he also liked skiing. He left school in the ninth grade and soon made the Austrian national team. In the fall of 1977, at 21, he made the decision to turn pro. "I was surprised that I skied so well that fall," he says. "Everything was well. I just skied like a bird flies."
That December he joined the WPS tour and came to America. He finished second in his first race at Aspen, Colo., learned a few English words at the press interview afterward and was on his way to stardom.
And wealth. This season Arnold's income from skiing will approach $750,000, which includes some $90,000 in prize money and the rest in payment from his many sponsors. He now owns a 20-bed pension in S‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√álden, and is part owner of a recreation racing program in Austria similar to NASTAR. He is also a partner in a year-round ski-slope project situated on a glacier near S‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√álden.
Arnold believes his ability to concentrate is what separates him from his competitors. It also separates pro and amateur racing. A World Cup skier must make only two runs per race; to win a WPS event a racer must make 10, against five different opponents, each breathing over his shoulder. "Hungry" is a favorite word of Arnold's. "Every time when I did not do well, it was my concentration," he says. "The problem is to stay hungry every week."
But it's hard to stay hungry when you've just wrapped up your fourth consecutive world title. Last week at the Volvo Cup Downhill in Sun Valley, Arnold slept late each day, rising at about 8:00 a.m., and began to prepare himself for the downhill. He rubbed down both legs with liniment and wrapped himself in elastic braces: one for each knee, and one for his back. He slipped on his long underwear, which he wouldn't have worn had he not already clinched the championship. Had this race been crucial, Arnold would have gone naked under the skintight suit to provide better aerodynamics and shave hundredths of seconds off his time.
Arnold had been the second-fastest qualifier the day before, behind Hans Hinterseer, a fellow Austrian who was the World Cup GS champion in 1973. It was a fast and difficult course, dropping 2,300 vertical feet over 1½ miles. Five of the 33 racers who attempted to qualify crashed. Arnold, not being a downhill specialist (the fastest downhillers are usually the ones with the wild eyes, not the ones with control), had trained hard all week. But despite his good qualifying time, he still hadn't found the best line through the S curves.
He finished the first of his two downhill runs 11th. His second run was better, fifth-fastest, but it only raised him to eighth overall. He stood at the bottom of the hill by a hay bale, watching as the other racers finished. The next day Arnold would get eliminated in the first round of the slalom. He shrugged at his lost weekend. "Every year, the first race after clinching the championship I always have trouble with the concentration," he said. "For sure, I'm angry about this. For sure, I will do better next time." And, for sure, he will.