The sun will soon drop behind the French Alps, and in Még√®ve, a little ski town 40 miles south of Geneva, the municipal skating rink is bathed in golden light as a small brunette skater begins a slow spin that will accelerate until her slim body is a blur. A couple of ruddy-faced locals turn to watch her. The skater is now floating through a series of axels as she circles the rink. Her movements are as light as a moth's, more airborne than ice-bound, and one of the locals asks breathlessly, "Qui est-elle?" When he's told that the Tinkerbelle before him is Tamara McKinney, a World Cup ski racer, he guffaws and hisses, "Impossible, m'sieur! Elle est trop petite!" And he stalks away chuckling over the stupidity of anyone who could mistake that slender, flitting figure for a ski champion. Ski racers, as he well knows, have thighs as thick as fire hydrants.
But it is McKinney out there, all 5'4" and 115 pounds of her, and there's nothing too small about her—on ice or snow. She's one of the two or three best female competitors on the ski circuit, and at the moment she's in the process of making as strong a run for the overall women's World Cup championship as any American ever has. McKinney skis with a ladylike delicacy that doesn't quite disguise a big appetite for hell-bent-for-leather speed. At the end of last week she was first in the World Cup standings with 162 points. That puts her one point ahead of veteran Hanni Wenzel of Liechtenstein and 27 points in front of last year's titlist, the demure Erika Hess of Switzerland, who just happens to be plus petite than even McKinney.
McKinney was born in—of all places for a ski racer—the bluegrass country of Kentucky. She's the eighth and youngest child in a family of distinguished horse riders and daredevil skiers. Tamara's father, Rigan, was a celebrated steeplechase jockey and was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in 1968. In 1931 he set a Grand National record aboard Green Cheese that stood for 25 years, until the Charlottesville, Va. course was changed. Her mother, Frances Warfield McKinney, formerly a ski instructor and currently a horse trainer, taught her children to ski in Nevada and to ride in Kentucky, and educated them in between. Tamara's great-great-great-great uncle, Dr. Elisha Warfield, was known as the Father of the Kentucky Turf, because in 1850 he bred the nonpareil racehorse, Lexington, perhaps the finest sire ever. Sheila, Tamara's 24-year-old sister, was a promising racer until a ski flew off during a downhill at Lake Tahoe's Heavenly Valley in 1977. She was flung helmet-first into a wooden post, suffering such severe head injuries that she was unable to walk and speak normally for almost a year. (She now works at a training stable in Camden, S.C.) Half-brother Steve McKinney, 29, became the first skier to break the mystical 200-kilometer-per-hour (124 mph) barrier in that speed-freakish competition known as the Flying Kilometer.
As Tamara slides off the rink in Még√®ve at twilight, one can see in her the controlled serenity of the horsewoman and the high-voltage joie de vivre of the Alpine skier. She says with absolutely unreserved delight, "Oh, this has been such a nice day. So sunny and nice, and this is such a neat town and I just love being in the mountains and being able to come into town and skate. Yesterday we were training at St. Gervais on the other side of the mountain. I was almost crying, my feet were so cold. But today—oh, today you could hardly ask for more."
February 7, 1983
Though McKinney is only 20, she's already in her fifth season on the U.S. ski team, her fifth year of grinding travel on mountain roads from race to race, her fifth year of rising in morning darkness to labor through cold training runs above quaint Alpine villages. "At first, well, I was only 15, and I was very distracted by everything over here," she says. "I was looking around in every direction. It was so new and so confusing. Now I've calmed down. But I don't want to have the novelty of it disappear. It's so easy to become nonchalant about all of these things. You have to remind yourself that this is something very special, and you have to make yourself keep looking at it in a fresh way."
Of course, it's enhancing to one's freshness if one is doing well at the races, and McKinney has been doing well for quite a while. In 1981 she finished first in three races and won the World Cup giant slalom title. It was the first time that an American woman had won that crown since '69. In '82 she skied much of the season with a painfully fractured right hand. Although she won no races and dropped to fourth in the giant slalom standings, she finished in the top four in seven of the 12 races she was able to enter. This year she has already won three races—including a giant slalom on Jan. 23 at St. Gervais, where she came in a whopping full second ahead of the runner-up, teammate Christin Cooper, 23. Last Sunday, her sixth-place finishes at Les Diablerets, Switzerland in the slalom and combined events increased her lead over Hess, who was disqualified. Wenzel, the winner of the combined, moved into second place overall.
McKinney, 12-year veteran Cindy Nelson, 27, and Cooper (until her season was interrupted for at least a couple of weeks by a knee injury last Friday) are the core of the most impressive U.S. women's ski team ever to hit the slopes. Last year they led the American women to their first Nation's Cup trophy as the best female team in the world. Says Hank Tauber, who used to coach the U.S. women and is now president of Marker Inc., the bindings firm, "This is the finest women's team since the great French team of the 1960s—and it was the best in the history of the sport." As in the past, the Americans this season skied hesitantly in the early races, but now that the World Cup schedule has reached midseason pitch, the team is performing up to expectations. Through mid-January the U.S. women stood first in Nation's Cup competition, with Switzerland in second place.
Bolstering the winning spirit is a considerable financial incentive, a factor that is rarely discussed. The main reason that the current team is so good is that it can afford to keep its veterans. The likes of Nelson, Cooper and McKinney have stayed in competition because these days a top-level woman skier can easily make $100,000 a year. Equipment manufacturers in effect pay the skiers for using their equipment, although the money is funneled through the team. The arrangement is legal and doesn't affect the women's amateur status. Says Cooper. "I'm lucky to be skiing now because the money for the top three or four women is equal to that for most of the men." And Nelson admits, "If I wasn't making the living I do skiing, I would have quit before the 1980 Olympics. We can afford to stay around longer and that gives us a better chance to develop." McKinney won't reveal the amount of her subsidies, but she does say, "We're compensated enough so that we can concentrate on skiing and not worry about getting a job the month after the season ends." Ironically, her brother Steve was disqualified from consideration for the 1975 national team because a ski company used his name on a poster, without his knowledge and without compensating him.
Whatever the inducements, Tamara is skiing at the top of her game. "I feel so good about things," she says. "I'm in better condition, stronger than I've been before. I'm thinking much better, too. I used to try to go too fast and I'd fly out of tight gates. I couldn't handle being the fastest one after the first run: I'd tense up and try too hard. I wasn't able to plan far enough ahead down a course. But now I can set up on the gate I'm going through and at the same time have my mind thinking way out ahead of my skis, preparing for what's coming three or four gates down the hill."
McKinney has at times been held back by injuries. Some have been serious, as when, at 14, two of her vertebrae were "squished" when a horse she was riding crashed through a jump. Other ailments have been naggingly painful, like the sprained ankle she suffered at Squaw Valley on Dec. 30 when she hooked a tip during a racing exhibition. But she is able to ski through such pain: In Verbier, Switzerland 10 days after that injury, she had the ankle heavily taped and buckled tightly into her boot so that she could compete in her first super giant slalom. (Created mainly because it makes for exciting television, this hybrid event combines the changes of direction of the giant slalom with some of the death-defying speed of the downhill.) McKinney finished third. The next day, in another super GS, she finished fourth.
McKinney's skiing technique—an unusual combination of daintiness and speed—consistently draws raves. Nicholas Howe, a ski writer who serves as the U.S. team's press representative on the circuit, says, "Tamara's touch on snow is phenomenal. She has this skittering, cascading laugh, and it is a perfect metaphor for the way she skis. She almost seems to skip down the slope." John Atkins, the women's team trainer for the past five years, says, "One thing about Tamara is that she really likes to go fast. Some other skiers pull up a little, hold back, and you can't blame them. These courses are very hairy. Tamara just plain loves speed. You can't teach a skier that; it's in the genes." Hanni Wenzel, who won two Alpine golds and a silver at the Lake Placid Olympics, has been known to shake her head in wonder at what she has seen after observing McKinney flit through the slalom gates. Following that euphoric one-two U.S. finish at St. Gervais, Cooper paid McKinney the ultimate compliment: "Tamara's so good at letting her skis float that when I train I try to keep the image of her on a course at the front of my mind."
McKinney has had a long time in which to perfect her technique. She was on skis before she could walk, schussing along between the legs of her skiing mother, brothers and sisters. Indeed, like the proverbial show business babies who sleep in trunks backstage, Tamara as an infant napped in a suitcase that her mother carried to weekend races in which her other offspring were competing. There was a peripatetic quality to the McKinney family life in the years just before and after Tamara was born. Her mother had moved from the Maryland horse country to the Nevada ski slopes in 1956, and she and Rigan were married near Reno. Frances McKinney had four children from a previous marriage—Lee, now 35, Laura, 33, Ouisha, 31, and Steve (a fifth child died as an infant)—and then she and Rigan had McLane, 26, Sheila and Tamara. Rigan ran a horse farm in Maryland, but he soon moved to the present 155-acre spread, called Blarney Farm, near Lexington, Ky. "The first six years we were sort of married by air mail," Frances recalls. "I was a ski instructor based in Nevada, raising my children by myself. He would come out and visit and then go back to the farm. We stayed out West between 1956 and 1962, and then when I was going to have Tamara we moved to Kentucky. All the children were [ski] racing by then and doing very well. So we decided Tamara shouldn't be left out just because she was born in Kentucky."
While still nursing Tamara, Frances commuted on weekends from Kentucky to Michigan ski areas so that her older kids could continue to race. This proved to be such a hassle that for the next several winters she moved her whole brood back West. At first they lived on a small ranch of their own, which they-later sold. After that, says Frances, "We lived in some pretty awful places just so we could ski, whatever there was for rent. Sometimes there was no hot water or heat or anything."
By now the young McKinneys were so committed to ski racing all over the U.S. that there often wasn't time for formal schooling. But even this didn't faze the indomitable Frances. "I'd grown up in Howard County, Maryland, in a very rural section where they used to say only God, the Warfields and the Indians lived," she says. "My early schooling was all through the Calvert School of Home Instruction in Baltimore. It was a very old and famous correspondence school that the families of diplomats overseas often used. It emphasized creative writing, art and poetry, and very strict math courses. I loved it, and this is what I used to educate my children, too."
The authorities in Nevada took a dim view of a family in which none of the seven children was officially enrolled in a school. But Frances persuaded the governor of Nevada to certify her home as the Ponderosa Day School so that she could continue the Calvert Home Instruction course.
Ski racing was what the young McKinneys majored in, of course. Their instructor was Anderl Molterer, the Austrian star of the '50s. At Mount Rose, above Reno, Molterer spent so much time working with the McKinneys that the parents of other youngsters in the racing program complained. Except for Lee and Ouisha, every one of the brood competed at least briefly on the national level. Lee and Ouisha became licensed thoroughbred trainers like their mother, and Laura works with the horses at Blarney Farm—a diverse operation that prepares dozens of thoroughbreds for both racing and the show circuit. Rigan, the best horseman of the lot, is no longer active, following a stroke in 1981.
Tamara herself is a skilled show-ring rider who might well compete in the Olympics someday as an equestrian. For now, however, she's committed to skiing: "It just isn't possible to do both horses and skiing at a world-class level. Skiing takes nine months of the year. Sometimes, when I'm home in Kentucky, I really wish I could start showing horses again. But then, when I think about it, skiing is so great. I can go up on a mountain, by myself, away from the whole world, and be really free. At horse shows I think I'd feel boxed in, being judged by other people, being subjected to their opinions, to their politics. For now, anyway, I like it up on a mountain where I'm my own best judge." McKinney could also have gone on with figure skating, a sport she took "fairly seriously" for a time, but she apparently sensed how boxed in and judged she would have been there, too. As it is, she can ski steadily from November to March and spend much of the summer and fall in Lexington with the horses.
Until Tamara came along, Steve was the famous skier among the McKinneys. He held the world downhill speed record for eight years, breaking his own mark most recently in Les Arcs, France last March, when he hit 201.230 kph, or 125.038 mph. (A month later, Franz Weber of Austria set the current record of 126.238 mph.) Now Steve seems bent on a life of mountain climbing—but not just any old mountain. He made the first winter ascent of 23,500-foot Pumori in Nepal in 1981, climbed (and skied down) Mt. McKinley last year and this spring plans to attack the West Ridge of Mt. Everest. He has always been an absolutely fearless free spirit, a Zen meditator and sometime vegetarian who once said about skiing, "Speed is the ultimate drug. What people are seeking with drugs is one clear moment when life can flow through the body without interference from the mind. That's what happens when I ski."
The McKinneys haven't been spared the costs of their love of going fast. Tamara had a particularly difficult time after Sheila's accident. "I was a forerunner in the race," she recalls, "and I didn't know that Sheila almost died on the course. If there hadn't been a neurosurgeon right there on the hill, she might not have made it. I was 14 then, and it was my first year on the U.S. team. It was hard because I had to go to the races alone. Sheila was unconscious, and Mom stayed with her. I had something like 12 races in two weeks and I did really poorly. That's the only time I doubted whether I wanted to keep on being a ski racer."
At 15 Tamara went on the World Cup circuit full time. In her first major race in Europe she finished an amazing third. Dubbed an instant star, the new American hope, she immediately went into a tailspin. In the next nine races she either fell or was disqualified. "I was at a loss about what to do," she says. "It was like a bad dream. I never considered quitting, though, because despite all the falls, I had some really fast times. But I was all tightened up. I was trying to go too fast. Finally I just took two weeks off and went free-skiing. I knew I had the ability to win, and when I came back to racing again, I felt a lot better."
The same winter McKinney made her debut on the World Cup circuit. Hess, who has become McKinney's racing nemesis but good friend, made hers. McKinney and Hess, who are almost the same age, have risen in tandem to the point where, along with Cooper and Wenzel, they can be considered pretty much in a class by themselves as slalom racers. "Erika had more success earlier than I did," says McKinney, "though she won her first World Cup race only 10 days before I did. When she was 17 she was more consistent than I and she won a bronze at Lake Placid. She's tough to beat because she's very strong mentally and skiing is such a mental sport."
Hess's superiority seemed to have melted away on that sun-splashed day at St. Gervais. Whereas McKinney was an almost effortless winner, Hess had to struggle to finish sixth. Could this be the beginning of the reign of a new ski-racing queen? No one is ready to put the crown on McKinney's head. But if ski racing is anything like horse racing, she has the bloodlines to go all the way.