The juggernaut began to roll in the deep snows of Argentina last August, thundered through the storms of Europe's harsh winter, then rocketed in climactic triumph down the sun-splashed slopes of Crans-Montana, Switzerland, to deliver the most overwhelming team performance in the history of skiing.
Here is what the superlative Swiss did over 13 glorious days at the 1987 Alpine World Championships: They won 8 of 10 gold medals to break a record set in 1962 in Chamonix by a mighty Austrian team and matched in 1966 in Portillo by a great French team. They swept the men's downhill, skiing's premier event, making the first four places wall-to-wall Swiss. They placed first, second and seventh in the women's downhill; first, second and fourth in the women's Super G; and first, third and fourth in the women's giant slalom. As for individuals: Pirmin Zurbriggen, the choirboyish man of steel who is now the best all-around skier in history, won two gold and two silver medals. Erika Hess, the sweet little veteran who has become a Swiss national treasure after 10 years of racing stardom, won two gold medals, giving her six golds over three separate world championships. Maria Walliser, a daredevil downhiller with a movie star's smile, won two golds and a bronze. Various other individual Swiss picked up medals here and there to give the team 14 overall.
It went on and on, with a sense of inevitability growing each day among increasingly frustrated non-Swiss racers and coaches. The usually powerful Austrians could glean no more than three silvers and one bronze. The gleeful Swiss coined some Polish-style Austrian jokes ("Why don't Austrian racers wear gloves? So they can be quicker to congratulate the Swiss at the finish."), and a newspaper in Graz, Austria, declared, "We are now an ex-ski nation." The American team, which had shown such promise in the 1985 championships in Bormio, Italy, with a gold and three bronzes, could take only a single bronze in Crans-Montana. The medal was won by the sprightly Tamara McKinney in the combined event, but when it came time for her to go for the gold in the slalom, in which she was a favorite, she went down in a sprawling, graceless fall that perfectly symbolized the dismal U.S. performance.
There could have been no better site for the championships than Crans-Montana. This tiny village, a cross between Vail and Rodeo Drive, is a perfect place to indulge the Swiss preoccupations with mountains and money. The town is a mecca for the Power Shopper set, with Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Yves Saint Laurent outlets lined up side by side. The ski slopes overlook as spectacular a vista as there is in Europe.
February 16, 1987
The Swiss skiers are as money minded as your average Zurich banker. Ask any member why the team has become so superior to those of the rest of the world, and he or she will probably reply, "It is because we are the most professional." For the 1987 world championships the national federation paid $25,000 for a gold medal, $10,000 for a silver, $5,000 for a bronze. These prizes are only the tip of the money iceberg; other endorsements bring superstars like Zurbriggen, Walliser and Hess as much as $660,000 a year.
There is nothing pampered about these skiing tycoons, however. The Swiss team is driven harder by its coaches than is any other team. Last summer the Swiss were sent to Argentina to train for the off-season World Cup downhills that were to be held in August at the Andean resort of Las Le‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as. To most racers, including the Swiss, these races are viewed as Mickey Mouse events featuring out-of-shape World Cup skiers who come for the appearance money. The Swiss, though, took them seriously. They began a fierce training schedule in the Argentine snow on July 18, long before the other teams appeared. When the races were held in mid-August, they blew away the competition.
Then the winter World Cup circuit began, and the Swiss kept charging: Zurbriggen and Walliser already have the overall World Cup titles all but wrapped up. By the time they arrived in Crans-Montana for the first race on Jan. 27, they were ready to make history.
The championships began with a controversial and possibly unnecessary event called the combined, a made-for-TV event that features an easy slalom and an easy downhill followed by arcane manipulations of split seconds to pick a winner. In this case the computer put Erika Hess (third in both the slalom and downhill) in first, Sylvia Eder of Austria in second and McKinney in third.
The men's combined was interesting mainly because it wasn't won by a Swiss. Marc Girardelli, 23—the displaced Austrian who has skied for Luxembourg since 1977 when his father decided his boy wasn't getting enough attention from the Austrian coaching hierarchy—took first place. Tough as a gorilla and nervy as a burglar, Girardelli has suffered all season from a left shoulder so loosely connected that it sometimes dislocates in his sleep. For the championships he imported an Egyptian healer-masseur from Salzburg and kept his shoulder in its socket long enough to add silver medals in the Super G and the giant slalom.
Zurbriggen had been heavily favored to win the combined, but he had to settle for a silver. It was a painful loss, yet he said manfully, "It is an honor to lose to Marc Girardelli." Zurbriggen was also the odds-on favorite to win the downhill, but again he finished second—this time to one of the angriest, stubbornest competitors in the ski world, his own teammate, Peter Müller, 29.
Müller has had many high finishes in major downhills, including silvers at Bormio in '85 and Sarajevo in '84, but he had never won a gold. This made him furious. Many other things did, too, including the fact that even though he has been on the team for 10 years, he still feels like an outcast. "I came from flat country and I was an intruder among the mountain boys," he said. "They told me, 'Go home, you can't learn to do it right.' Right from my first World Cup race, they were against me."
Müller became a man obsessed. He said, "During the whole last year, I have been thinking of nothing but the date, the 31st of January, when the downhill is run." He performed fiendishly hard training exercises—including one in which a grown man sits on his back while Müller holds a tuck for two solid minutes. Last summer he rode his bicycle some 230 miles from his home near Zurich to Crans-Montana, where he walked the downhill course from top to bottom, examining the terrain as minutely as if it were a Persian rug he wanted to buy.
The Crans-Montana downhill proved to be a quirky, cascading roller coaster of a course with lots of humps, bumps and jumps—some of which flung skiers 40 yards through the air. Müller attacked the hill like a mad bull, lunging into turns, exploding over jumps, staying just barely in control. He did one jump so badly that he said later, "I hit the piste like a pheasant shot in flight. I thought I had certainly lost, and that relaxed me."
But he had won. His time was 2:07.8, a comfortable .33 of a second margin over Zurbriggen. Behind them came the Swiss deluge: Karl Alpiger, third; Franz Heinzer, fourth; and Daniel Mahrer, sixth behind Canadian Rob Boyd. Never had a single team so dominated a men's downhill. For both the Swiss and Müller, it was the sweetest possible triumph. Crowed Müller at a press conference, "No matter how well I skied, Pirmin always made the front page. So it is a great satisfaction to have beaten him today. It was high time for me to win a gold medal."
It was getting to be very much high time for Zurbriggen to win one, too. Two silvers aren't the stuff myths are made of, and young Pirmin, just 24 last week, has his eye on history. Recently he told journalist Patrick Lang of Switzerland, "[Jean-Claude] Killy was the great champion of the '60s. [Franz] Klammer was the king of the '70s. I want to be the legend of the '80s."
Zurbriggen is pretty close to legendary already, and he possesses the grit, the touch, the tactical genius, to say nothing of the perfect racing environment, to outdo every ski racer of the past. For the 1988 Calgary Olympics two new alpine events have been added—the combined and the Super G, a sort of tame downhill. Thus it will be possible for Zurbriggen to win five gold medals in '88—as well as in '92 and perhaps in '94, when the Winter Games go on in alternate quadrennia with the Summer Games.
But if he is looking to emulate the charismatic Killy or the manly Klammer, Pirmin Zurbriggen (that name!) has his work cut for him. There is something so innocent, so nice, even so virginal about him that he seems too good to be true. A Swiss magazine asked him last week if he was embarrassed by his image as every mother's son. He said, no, he wasn't embarrassed. "Being a champion doesn't mean I have to lead the life of a rock star. Yes, it is true I go home whenever I can. It is also true that I help my mother do the dishes, that I play the trumpet, that I pray in the morning, the evening, even at midday with my parents before a meal, and that I go to church on Sundays."
Behind the goody-two-shoes mien, though, beats the heart of a hero. The pressure of racing in front of the tough Swiss hometown crowds was tremendous. Zurbriggen lives in the tiny village of Saas-Almagell, 30 miles down the valley. The local boy simply had to make good or forever eat alpine raven for having failed in front of his closest friends.
The Super G was included in the world championships for the first time this year, and Zurbriggen was the big favorite to win. As the hills resounded with the sounds of clanging cowbells and bellowing Swiss, Pirmin, starting fifth, made a flashing, flawless run and finished first over Girardelli by the huge margin of .87. "I felt so aggressive I could hardly hold it in," Zurbriggen said. At the medal ceremonies, as his neighbors roared and rang the bells, his eyes filled with tears.
The giant slalom fell on Feb. 4, Pirmin's birthday, and, as it turned out, his teammate Jo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬•l Gaspoz, 24, gave him the nicest possible gift. In the first run Zurbriggen was his usual splendid self, but Gaspoz was just a touch better, .3 ahead of Pirmin. In the second run Zurbriggen went off first, just before Gaspoz, and produced a powerful, slashing race that placed him first. He could do nothing more than wait and watch Gaspoz, a frequent World Cup giant slalom winner, make his run. Picking up speed rapidly, staying low and close to the gates, Gaspoz was nothing short of perfect until, less than a second from a certain gold medal, he hooked a ski tip on the third-to-last gate. He fell heavily in a shower of snow and slid across the finish line on his side.
As great as the men were, the Swiss women were even better. They didn't lose at all. After Hess's gold in the combined came the downhill. It was a beautifully designed course on hard snow, a course that many judged the best ever set for the women. Naturally the Swiss were favored. Perhaps the most favored was Michela Figini, 20, a dark-eyed beauty from the southwest Italian region of Switzerland. She had won the gold in this event in Sarajevo and had already won two World Cup downhills this season. Next was Walliser, 23, the ever-smiling woman from the foothill country to the east. She had never won a medal of any kind, although she was the overall World Cup champion in 1986.
To make the race the more compelling, Figini and Walliser are locked in an ardent rivalry that falls just short of an all-out feud. In a recent interview with the Swiss magazine Illustrè, Figini was asked if Walliser was her "enemy." She replied, "That's a big word, but it's true that we don't get along. Until I arrived on the team, she won almost everything. Tensions were inevitable for that reason. But, in any case, between her, a true Swiss German, and me, with my Latin temperament, there is no common ground. We could never become friends." The interviewer protested that he had seen Figini and Walliser kiss after races on TV. Figini flared. "It is her who kisses me. I don't ever kiss her, even if she wins. I shake hands."
Walliser is sleeker, more sophisticated and very quick to switch on her blinding smile. Some of her envious Swiss critics call her geziert, meaning phony. She is certainly headstrong and perfectly willing to do battle with her coaches. "She is very, very ambitious," sighs her coach, Jean-Pierre Fournier, "although that, of course, can create very useful qualities in this sport."
Whether driven by ambition, ego, money or her rivalry with Figini, Walliser was all but unbeatable. She sped down that perfect downhill course to win, .31 ahead of Figini. Two days later in the Super G, Walliser won by a huge 1.01 seconds, again leaving Figini in the silver shade. At the Super G press conference Walliser turned on her star's smile and said. "I won because I still had the joy of the downhill in my heart." Figini declared coldly, "Everything went wrong. I made so many mistakes during the race that I didn't expect to get any medal at all."
In the giant slalom neither of the rivals got the gold. Of course, there was yet another Swiss ready to step onto the winner's stand: Vreni Schneider, 22, a quiet, courageous woman who won the World Cup GS title last year despite a painful knee injury. The daughter of a shoemaker, Schneider charged hard in the first run and more cautiously in the second, finishing a comfortable .56 ahead of a bright young Yugoslav hope, Mateja Svet, 18, who also won a bronze in the Super G. It was Schneider's first medal, and she said afterward, "Surely, this is beautiful, but please don't make a fuss about it. I kept thinking of Jo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬•l Gaspoz all through my second run."
Of all the victories celebrated by the Swiss in Crans-Montana, the nicest occurred in the women's slalom. It was the last women's race in this championship, and it also happened to be the last championship race—ever—for the venerable and adored Hess. She will retire from racing in March, and she couldn't have picked a more dramatic setting for her swan song.
The Crans-Montana slalom was a monster in the first run. No fewer than 6 of the top-seeded first 15 failed to finish—including the luckless McKinney. The only Swiss hope was Hess, who had finished third in the first run, a daunting 1.33 behind the leader, Austria's veteran Roswitha Steiner, and just .1 behind another Austrian, Monika Maierhofer.
Hess went off first in the second run, charging into the sound of cowbells. The clamor rose and grew deafening as she weaved down the course, for it was clear to everyone that this would be a slalom to remember. Her run of 46.51 seconds brought her total to 1:33.30, a tough time to beat. She hugged everyone in reach, then waited for the Austrians. Mairhofer flung herself down the course with abandon, but lost control—and any chance of victory. Steiner, the old pro, elected to move in stately safety through the gates, but she was so conservative that she lost all of her lead, and .25 besides. Erika Hess was thus left with her sixth lifetime gold medal and one of the happiest racing victories in a long, long time.
All in all, the Swiss put on an unsurpassed—and perhaps unsurpassable—performance. When someone asked Zurbriggen about his country's utter domination of the sport, he said quietly, "Of course, this, too, will pass." Possibly. But maybe not before the Swiss reap yet another gold rush—this one in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, just about one year from now.