One Mahre Time For America

The amazing U.S. skiers carved up the world Alpine championships, winning five medals, including a gold by Steve—yes, Steve—Mahre
February 15, 1982

Ski racing's white circus completed its 26th biennial world-championship show last week on the steeps above Schladming and Haus, a pair of rustic villages tucked together in the Dachstein-Tauern region of Austria where the fragrance of street-side cow barns mixes interestingly with the exhaust of tourist buses. It took 12 long, sometimes tedious, days to finish the whole program, and they were filled with the most extreme weather the Alps can produce—deep fog and deep snow followed by a deluge of rain, followed by a glorious siege of bright skies and bitter cold that turned racecourses as hard and abrasive as stone. Yet, after the troupe pulled up its slalom stakes and moved on, there remained a sense of surprise—even amazement—over what had taken place in that beautiful back valley of the Alps. For while this 1982 Fédération Internationale de Ski championship produced its quota of heroes and heroines and its usual share of high drama, there was one turn of events that no one had even remotely forecast: This event was, above all, an American triumph.

Yes, as wild and unlikely as it sounds, the U.S. won five medals—as many as Switzerland and more than France (two), more than Canada (two), more than the Soviet Union (zero) and, most notably, more than skiing's former superpower, Austria (three).

Of even greater gratification than the cumulative triumphs were the individual victories. First and most delightful was the wholly unexpected feat of Steve Mahre, 24, the younger (by four minutes) and until now less renowned of the twins from White Pass, Wash. Steve stepped in where his fallen brother, Phil, had failed, won the giant slalom and thereby got the first gold medal ever awarded an American male in a world-championship race.

Then there was the dark-eyed beauty from Sun Valley, Idaho, Christin Cooper, 22, who won an unmatched (for an American) three medals—none gold, alas—and underwent an instant nickname change from Coop to Super Coop. And how about Cindy Nelson, 26, known as Grandma because she's in her 11th and perhaps best ever season? Nelson won a silver medal in the downhill and was done out of another medal by the scoring system that's used in the FIS's weird new combination event.

Stirring though the Americans' performances were, the individual who dominated the 1982 championships was Erika Hess, 19, of Switzerland. With seeming effortlessness, she flowed down whatever kind of surface the fickle weather produced—including chemically created ersatz ice on a rain-drenched slope of slush—to win three gold medals, in the women's slalom, giant slalom and combined events.

As sweet-looking as a daisy but as sturdy as an oak, Hess was a ski-racing wunderkind who grew up on a farm with 15 cows and five brothers and sisters and quit school to ski full time when she was 15. At 17 she won a bronze medal in the slalom at Lake Placid and this year has won four of the seven World Cup slaloms for women. She's saucy and proud, and when someone suggested that she might want to emulate West Germany's Rosi Mittermaier, who won two golds and a silver in the 1976 Olympics, Hess said sharply, "Don't compare me with Rosi. I am Erika and I pay no attention to who was skiing two, four or six years ago." With the recent retirements of Annemarie Moser-Pröll and Marie-Theres Nadig, plus injuries to Hanni Wenzel, Hess seems ready to be fitted for the queen's crown. As U.S. Coach Tom Kelly says, "Hess is technically the best skier who has ever come along. She's a class above all other women."

Not so long ago one could say the same about the fabled Austrian ski team. No more. Even performing in their own mountains before whooping partisan crowds, the Austrians went day after day without a victory. Not until the men's downhill on the next to last day of the championships did their fortunes turn. It couldn't have come at a better time, because to Austrians a downhill championship is an amalgam of the World Series, Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Thrilla in Manila—you name it.

On the day of the race the pressure for gold was immense, and a bellowing throng of 55,000, flushed with schnapps and high hopes, carpeted the slopes along the 3,401-meter course. The man they looked to to save the nation's face was the one they call Kaiser Franz—Franz Klammer, the 1976 Olympic hero. Though Klammer had fallen on hard times in recent years (he didn't even make the 1980 Olympic team), he had finally won a World Cup downhill in December, and now his country wanted nothing more than for him to rekindle the fires of patriotism that he had lighted for them six years ago. It was not to be. The Kaiser, dashing and reckless as always, took a nasty spill at 70 mph on his last training run and badly bruised a rib. He raced with great courage anyway and finished seventh, but this wasn't enough for the victory-famished Austrians.

They finally got satisfaction from a wiry Tyrolean named Harti Weirather, 24, winner of last year's World Cup downhill title. This cool daredevil started 11th, the next to the last Austrian hope in the field, and swept to victory. "The pressure was terrible. I felt I had to win or it would be a great tragedy," he said. True enough. After Weirather's triumph, one spectator intoned to his companion, "This has lifted a deep shadow from the soul of Austria." No one was more aware of that shadow than Karl (Downhill Charly) Kahr, head Austrian coach and the No. 1 citizen of Schladming. "You can do anything in Austria except lose the downhill," he said. "If Harti hadn't won today, those 55,000 would have torn my house to pieces."

Another Austrian, Erwin Resch, got the bronze in the downhill, and the host country's third medal was a bronze won by Anton Steiner in the new combined event. Concocted by the FIS's heavy indoor thinkers, the new combination involves participation in a special downhill and special slalom held separately from other events. It eliminates the old combined awards, given to the racers who did best in the three "real" races. The idea was met with both ridicule and anger by competitors. Phil Mahre, the best combined skier on the World Cup circuit, refused to enter the new event. Even the man who won the combined gold medal, a certified mediocrity named Michel Vion of France, said of the event, "C'est stupide."

And nothing was plus stupide than the scoring system for the combined, which, absurdly, gave more weight to the slalom than the downhill. Witness Nelson, who finished second in the downhill and sixth in the slalom, and Cooper, who finished second in the slalom and 21st in the downhill. Yet Cooper won the combined bronze; Nelson was fourth.

However cut-rate Cooper's combined medal might have been, the pair of silvers she got in the slalom and giant slalom bore no tarnish. And winning these was as surprising and delightful as Steve Mahre's winning the gold. For, until a scant four days before the championships began, Cooper had never won a World Cup race, despite six seasons of trying. Then, on Jan. 23 in Berchtesgaden, she got a slalom victory and became one of only three women to beat Hess in that event this season.

She did it despite a fractured rib she had suffered early in January. Although to others her recent successes seem sudden and surprising, to Super Coop they are thoroughly logical. "After I got the silver in the GS, I expected to win a gold in the slalom, she says. "In the start, I decided I was going to win or I was going to eat it trying. Then I made too many mistakes in the first run. Frankly, it took a while to be happy with the silver."

On the other hand, Nelson, who finished second behind Canada's Gerry Sorensen in the downhill, found her silver medal satisfying. Nelson was as effervescent as champagne when she discussed her run, saying, "This race was the best I ever skied. In fact, I also made the best single turn I've ever done. It was a dip turn that went left, then right, through a compression. When I did it, I thought wow! And I just wanted to stop and savor the moment."

Steve Mahre had wanted to stop and savor a moment back in the state of Washington, but the World Cup tour had beckoned. On Dec. 29 in Yakima, his wife, Debbie, had given birth to their first baby, Ginger. Mother and daughter were doing fine when they came home on New Year's Eve. But Steve had to leave for Europe on Jan. 3. At Schladming he said, "This trip has turned out to be the worst ever. Not knowing how things were going for Debbie and the baby really bothered me. Riding up on the lift, I'd wonder what was going on at home. I'd wish I hadn't left them. I was writing every night. I was calling once a week. Once, in the middle of January, I phoned her, and she said that if she could have called me a couple of days earlier, she would have told me to come home. I would have gone in a flash."

Steve was also recovering from surgery to both knees that had been performed on Dec. 19. His long history of knee trouble dates back to the days when he and Phil raced dirt bikes. Early in December, Steve had taken a bad fall in France and developed a "catching sensation" in his right knee. His left knee already tended to swell and give him pain.

During the Christmas break from the World Cup tour, he turned himself in to Dr. Dick Steadman, the U.S. Ski Team's miracle-working orthopedist, who in 1979 rebuilt Phil's terribly smashed left ankle with plates and screws. It was a repair job so perfect that Phil has since won a silver medal in the 1980 Olympic slalom, last year's overall World Cup and this year's overall World Cup, which he wrapped up on Jan. 23—earlier than anyone in history—with a slalom victory at Wengen, Switzerland.

Steadman did delicate arthroscopic surgery on Steve's knees. He removed cartilage from the left and then slipped the right kneecap into a slightly different position by cutting a bit from the bands that line the joint. Both operations were considered minor. Nevertheless, the night after the surgery Steadman bolted awake in the dark and thought, "Good God, what have I done? I've just operated on that boy's knees with only six weeks to go before the world championships." Of course, in the clear light of day, Steadman was certain that all was well. He told Steve, "Those are now gold-medal knees."

On the day of the giant slalom, the twins arose as usual in the morning moonlight, breakfasted and went up the mountain above Schladming with U.S. Men's Coach Konrad Rickenbach. They took five intense runs on a training course and then went down.

The championship course was very steep and hard as iron. Steve started fourth in the first run, ran a superb line down the course and finished in 1:21.32. Sweden's vaunted Ingemar Stenmark ran seventh. He had experienced some trouble with the edges on his favorite GS skis and came in a whopping 1.37 seconds behind Steve. Phil started 13th, and the crowd that thronged the fences along the course grew tense with anticipation. The letdown came almost immediately: Phil skied off the course after no more than 10 seconds. "It was a mistake you make once in two thousand races," he said. "I got locked into a lefthand turn and I couldn't transfer my weight to the other ski. On the TV tape it looks as if I might have crossed my tails."

So it was up to Steve. Despite his wide lead over Stenmark, there was reason for concern. Steve had never won a World Cup giant slalom; Stenmark had won the World Cup giant slalom title five of the past six years.

For the second run Stenmark had changed skis and clocked a superlative 1:16.62. Phil had studied Stenmark's run on TV in a room just beyond the finish area and he spoke rapidly into a walkie-talkie to Steve up at the start. "I told him that the course looked a little rounder than the first run," Phil said, "but I said he should continue to be real aggressive and go to the gates."

Steve got in trouble early in the run, hitting the fifth gate too straight and falling badly off line. It took him several gates to get back on course. "I figured with the mistakes I was making, I'd be lucky to get third," he said later. Then he picked up the rhythm of the run and, as Phil put it, "nailed the bottom half of the course just as well as he did on the first run." Steve was .86 slower than Stenmark in the second run but his wide early lead held, and America's first men's gold medal was his.

No sooner had he skidded to a stop at the finish than Steve removed his skis, and flashing the Mahres' trademark sunburst smile, he pointed meaningfully at them. Students of ski commerce, cynics all, assumed he was indicating the logo on his K2 skis. But neither commerce nor cynicism is part of the Mahre twins' baggage. The object of the gesture was a small strip of tape printed with black letters that spelled GINGER 1. (And K2. Get it?) "When I won a race in Cortina in December," Steve said, "I told myself at the start, 'Let me have one for Debbie.' This time I said, 'Give me this one for Ginger.' "

The last event of the championships was the men's special slalom, and there was every reason to hope, even to assume, that the American medal total would grow. But not this year. The Mahre twins both blew gates on the course, Steve in his first run and Phil in his second. That left the mountainside wide open for Stenmark, who swept down in typically grand fashion to win the gold medal. For once, the stony Swede responded to victory with visible—for him, almost violent—elation, waving his fists and shaking his skis joyfully. It was an oddly uplifting sight and added its happy note to an American week in a back valley of the Alps.

PHOTOMahre takes a gate en route to GS gold and the first world title for a U.S. male. TWO PHOTOSHess, the white circus' star, got three golds: combined, slalom and GS (below). PHOTODownhiller Weirather gave Austria a lift. PHOTONelson has a score to settle in the combined, but things added up for her in the downhill. PHOTOSuper Coop was no chicken at the worlds.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)