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Olympic Polonaise

Jan. 27, 1988
Jan. 27, 1988

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Jan. 27, 1988

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Olympic Polonaise

The Tlalka twins, Dorota and Malgorzata, left their native Poland to make sweet ski music for France

On a hot September afternoon, the members of the French women's ski team could be found relaxing at a water park near Nice. The team had gathered for a week of training in the south of France, a venue that will never be mistaken for, say, Parris Island. Malgorzata Tlalka Mogore, a slalom racer, wants it understood, however, that the team has been training seriously. "We worked out hard in the morning, for two hours." says Malgorzata. "It is not all fun and games."

This is an article from the Jan. 27, 1988 issue Original Layout

This also accurately describes the recent tumultuous past for Malgorzata and her twin sister, Dorota, another slalom specialist. In 1985 they decided to leave their native Poland because they felt outdated training methods had arrested their skiing development. Today they, with Super G specialist Catherine Quittet and slalom specialist Patricia Chauvet, are France's best hopes for a skiing medal in Calgary.

It hasn't been easy for the 24-year-old sisters. They have had to adjust to the customs of a new land, a new language and a new life that includes marriages to French brothers. Dorota married for love, Malgorzata out of expediency. They also had to battle their way back in the Fèdèration Internationale de Ski's rankings after being penalized for changing national federations. Having plummeted to 57th and 65th place in the slalom, Dorota and Malgorzata stand 16th and 13th, respectively, rankings that reflect the parallel development of their careers; you will discover that these twins are nothing if not twinlike. And they are still dealing with the angst of leaving their family and their friends and with their memories of a happy childhood in Poland.

"I'm not sure either of us could have done it without the other." says Dorota. In truth, the twins don't know what one could do without the other, for the longest they've ever been separated—womb to slopes—is three weeks. Even now, Malgorzata (Margot to her French teammates) shares a house with Dorota and her sister's husband, Christian Mogore, in the village of Uriage-Les-Bains, six miles from Grenoble. (Margot's husband, Christophe, lives in Grenoble.) The twins' relationship is like that of a husband and wife who go to the office together: yet—don't forget—they are also competitors. One wonders if they ever tire of each other.

Margot looks at her sister and chucks her under the chin. "Not yet." she says, smiling.

The Tlalka (tlow-ka) sisters were born into an athletic family on April 27, 1963, Dorota five minutes earlier than Margot. Their father, Jan, won 16 Polish speed skating championships, while their mother, Wlada, was an excellent cross-country skier. The twins grew up in the town of Zakopane, in the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland. The Tlalka sisters learned to skate and ski while very young. "Born on skis, die on skis." says Margot. When they were 12, they abandoned their father's sport to concentrate on the slopes.

"Skiing is very popular in Poland, but there have never been great champions," says Margot. "So you do not feel pressure. When my sister and I started to do well, there was—how should I say it?—a great explosion of happiness from the people." She confers with Dorota in Polish. "And when we didn't have a good race, when we lost, it was not a great national deception." Disaster? "Yes, disaster, that is it."

The Tlalkas first slalomed onto the international scene in a World Cup race in Austria in 1981 when, after one run, Dorota stood first and Margot third. On the second run, they went off the course at the same point, which might be expected of twins. While preparing for the 1982 world championships (where Dorota surprised everyone with a fourth-place finish), they were interviewed by Christian Mogore, the ski reporter from Le Dauphinè Libèrè, one of France's largest newspapers. Dorota and Christian's meeting ignited sparks and the relationship grew. But by 1985, the twins had a more pressing concern: how to resuscitate their careers. "We were standing still," says Dorota. "We wanted something different in our training techniques. We tried to discuss it with our trainer, but he didn't want to hear about it."

The trainer, Andrzej Kozak, according to others besides the twins, is not a man of compromise. "He is a member of the Party and he built a political atmosphere around everything," says Margot. "He began to mix up skiing and politics. He wanted to control us."

Some factors Kozak could do nothing about. The twins wanted year-round training; Poland has no glacier. The twins wanted better equipment; Poland has only one factory that manufactures ski equipment. "And we had no—how would you call it?—sparring partners except each other," says Dorota.

So they started looking around. The United States was too far. France seemed logical because Dorota, see, knew this Frenchman.... "The original idea was to study in France, practice with the French team and still ski for Poland." says Margot. But then Christian and Dorota decided to marry. It was definitely, as they call it, "a love marriage." but the couple admits that the prospect of expediting Dorota's French citizenship through marriage hastened the decision. Meanwhile, Christian's youngest brother. Christophe, a national-caliber bicycle racer whose career was cut short by back trouble, studied the situation from a pragmatic perspective. "Why don't I marry Malgorzata?" he said, trying to be helpful. Why not, indeed?

In June 1985 the twins left Poland with their father, ostensibly for a vacation. Jan returned to Zakopane, but his daughters didn't. On Oct. 12, 1985, they were married to the Mogore brothers in a double ceremony in Grenoble, and the twins became French citizens in June 1986.

François Sedan, a coach for the French team, studies Dorota and Margot as they have a thrust and parry at each other during a leisurely fencing workout at Louis II Stadium in Monte Carlo. "The twins are well-liked and respected on the team," says Sedan, "but they have, now, what you would call a very independent life-style within the team. That is partly because they are so dependent on each other. It is not a bad thing, however. It is shown by Margot's training, mostly. Margot tries to do too much. Some others you have to push, but Margot you must push to stop. And. sometimes, late in the season, she is tired."

Margot acknowledges the criticism. "I have had some back pain, and maybe it's from the extra tennis and volleyball." She smiles. "Then again, maybe it is my age."

The differences between the twins are exemplified by Margot's propensity to overtrain. She is intense, while Dorota is easygoing. Margot tends to brood, where Dorota practically bubbles; searching for the French words to describe his wife. Christian comes up with très ouverte, "very open."

Margot looks more like an athlete in training. too. Christian remembers that the twins were "almost impossible to tell apart" five years ago. but they are easily distinguished now. Margot is not overweight by any means, but she is at least seven pounds heavier than Dorota. It is Margot who has established herself in the grueling giant slalom—she finished seventh last February at the world championships and considers herself a serious contender for an Olympic medal—though Dorota had good GS results last December. "Margot skis harder, more aggressively." says Sedan, "whereas Dorota depends on finesse. She has a very fine touch on the turns."

The twins do not necessarily agree that their styles are different—"If I watch a video, I cannot always be sure if it is my sister or me," says Dorota—but they do admit to personal differences. "I think maybe I'm a little cooler, a little calmer." says Dorota. "On skis, I do not take so seriously the troubles of the course. I think my sister is a little more nervous and..."—she stops to question Margot in Polish—"yes, a little more analytical.

"In life it's like that, too. Say I want to buy a dress and it's really too much money, but, oh, I like it so I buy it. My sister can see the same dress and say, 'Oh, I don't know. Where will I wear it? Do I need it really? Do—' "

"Do I have the shoes to go with it?" cuts in Margot. "Do I have a bag to go with it? Does it...."

You get the idea. But one should not dwell on their differences, lest they become exaggerated into stereotypes. Their differences are more of degree than type, and they so obviously complement each other that it seems as if they sat down one day and worked out a checklist—you take this and I'll take that. "They are a mix of parts" is the way Christian puts it. Dorota, for example, is at the point on public relations matters and is much more arrangement-minded. "If there is a phone call for the twins," says Christian, "my wife is always, always, always the one who returns it." But Margot tends to hold the reins on matters relating strictly to skiing. She usually speaks for both at official press conferences and does most of the technical schmoozing with the coaches.

"We've always been together," says Margot, "doing the same things, going to the same places. So maybe it is natural we work together so well, and that we have the same view of so many things."

Perhaps. But the twins seem preternaturally close, given the pressures they face both in private and on the slope. Their respective marital situations, for example, could be a breeding ground for trouble, but they aren't. Margot doesn't relish talking about her arranged marriage to Christophe, but neither is she ashamed of it. She and her husband are good friends and, fortunately for the harmony of the household in Uriage, she and Christian are extremely close, too. "I think of myself not only as the husband of Dorota," says Christian, "but also the brother of Malgorzata."

The twins miss their parents desperately, so desperately that it is hard for them to talk about it. They have seen them only a few times since leaving Poland, but they have not been back to their native country. There is no legal reason they cannot travel freely to and from Poland, but they have decided that it would be better to let some time pass before they do. Chances are, they will return in the spring or summer.

Their feelings about Poland are complicated and, refreshingly, not identical. Dorota seems much more certain than her sister that her future lies in France.

"If I would finish my ski career in Poland, and everyone would know my name, it would be nice, but then what would I be?" says Dorota. "Only a ski trainer. In France, there seems to be more of a chance to develop yourself."

Margot is not so sure. "I think of myself as a Pole." she says. "Maybe in 20 years it will be different, but that's how it is right now.

"You know, in Poland there were moments when it was not nice to be there, like during the time of martial law. It was not quite so dramatic in Zakopane as in other, more working-class cities, but you could feel it. The soldiers, the policemen. Dorota and I had been in the West competing, shopping, smiling, out doing things, and when we came home, we could see that our people were anxious and distressed. Poland is not going to look very good with that comparison."

She pauses and smiles. "But still I love Poland," she continues. "When I think of Poland, I think of our childhood, our parents, only pleasurable things. The Poles have a strange mind, you see. In every world-famous person they try to find the Polish blood. And usually they succeed. They are proud of their people, and I know they would be proud of Dorota and me. It would give me great satisfaction to win a medal, for myself, for France, for Poland."

The twins are not favorites to finish in the top three in Calgary, but neither are they long shots. They have a chance. Which raises an interesting question: How would one twin react if only her sister won a medal?

Dorota squirmed in her seat and thought about it for a moment. Then she looked her sister squarely in the eye and smiled. "I would be unbelievably happy," she said, "but I would prefer it would be me." Margot smiled and nodded. "I agree with that," she said.

PHOTOMAX COLIN/SIPASIGN OF THE TIMES: DOROTA (LEFT) AND MARGOT HAVE A NEW LIFE IN A FRENCH VILLAGEPHOTOCARL YARBROUGH/TEAMWORKMARGOT (TOP) IS A VERY AGGRESSIVE SKIER, WHILE DOROTA DEPENDS ON FINESSEPHOTOMAX COLIN/SIPA[See caption above.]PHOTOMAX COLIN/SIPACHRISTIAN SHARES A HOUSE IN URIAGE WITH BOTH HIS WIFE (LEFT) AND SISTER-IN-LAWTHREE ILLUSTRATIONS