The last time the U.S. hosted an Alpine world skiing championship was an eternity ago—in 1950—and the last time an American had won a world-class ski event was no fewer than 99 races ago, dating back to January '87. This changed last week as the biennial World Alpine Ski Championships opened in Vail, Colo. Five days into the 15-day competition Tamara McKinney, the infinitely likable though star-crossed 26-year-old from Squaw Valley, Calif., won a thrilling—and deserved—gold medal in the women's combined.
This is an article from the Feb. 13, 1989 issue
Before McKinney's triumph spread smiles across the Colorado Rockies, it seemed as if the Vail championships might get buried beneath drifts of bad news. First, a budding Swiss star, Beatrice Gafner, 24, suffered a possible career-ending injury when she fractured her right kneecap and tore her anterior cruciate ligament going over an extra-big bump during a downhill training run. Next came a fatal accident so bizarre and horrible that it was hard to believe it happened: His Royal Highness Don Alfonso de Borbón y Dampierre, 52, cousin to the king of Spain and longtime member of the, Fèdèration Internationale de Ski (FIS) Council, was all but decapitated when he skied into a cable suspended a few feet above the snow in the finish area of the men's downhill course at Vail's sister resort, Beaver Creek (page 7). Two days later the reigning overall World Cup champion, Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland, was painfully bruised, though not disabled, when a gust of wind hit him in midair and threw him into a windmill tumble during training on the same slope.
By the time McKinney sped to her triumph last Thursday, spirits were low. The championships had begun on Jan. 29 with the slalom leg of the women's combined, but the downhill portion of the event didn't take place until four long, dragged-out days later—not because of the weather, but because the schedulers had inserted a three-day downhill training period between the two legs of the event.
The favorite to win the gold medal in the combined was 24-year-old Vreni Schneider, the sweet-faced daughter of a Swiss mountain village shoemaker, who this World Cup season has set a record for men and women by winning 10 consecutive slaloms and giant slaloms. Schneider has been so dominant that only one woman on the circuit has beaten her in as many as two slalom runs: McKinney. But McKinney had never put together a pair of winning runs in the same race this season, and her best slalom finishes were a second and two thirds, which left her in third place behind Schneider and Monika Maierhofer of Austria in the World Cup slalom standings.
McKinney's 11-year career has been graced by 18 World Cup wins. This is more than any other American, male or female, has ever had, and it includes that most recent world-class victory by any U.S. skier, in a slalom in Mellau, Austria two years ago. No other American racer has won a major international event since March 1986.
Marvelous though her record is, McKinney has also experienced some considerable disappointments—even tragedies—over the years. At 16 she finished third in her first big race in Europe, was instantly dubbed the sport's new baby star and then failed to finish her next nine races. In 1981 she won three giant slaloms and the World Cup title for that event, but the following season she fractured her right hand and won nothing. In '83 she won the overall World Cup title, something no other American woman has done. The roller coaster went on and on: A strong fourth in the giant slalom (GS) in the '84 Winter Games in Sarajevo was followed by a failure to finish the Olympic slalom. She got bronze medals in world championship combined events in Bormio, Italy, in '85, and in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, in '87, but broke her left leg in '88 and was not fully recovered for the Olympics in Calgary, where she finished neither the GS nor the slalom.
Off the slopes. McKinney, the youngest of seven children, has been hit by a series of family disasters. In 1977, when Tamara was 14, her sister Sheila, a world-class racer, slammed into a post during a World Cup downhill at Heavenly Valley in California, spent a year unable to walk or speak properly and never raced again. Her father, Rigan, a celebrated steeplechase jockey in his younger years, suffered a stroke in 1981 and died a lingering death four years later. Her half-brother, Steve, famed for his speed skiing and other high-risk sporting feats, was badly hurt last year in a helicopter accident at a speed skiing event in Chile. Her brother, McLane, committed suicide last summer following the death of their mother, Frances, after a long bout with cancer.
A sensitive, private Kinney rarely bares her soul in public, but last week she spoke of her mother's death to Charlie Meyers of The Denver Post: "I still feel it intensely," she said. "She was my inspiration and I still can be made to cry about it. A couple of days ago...I was doing an interview with some TV people and they kept pushing and pushing. Finally, tears started to come and they said, 'O.K., that's enough.' I miss her. We loved each other so much when she was alive and I still feel that."
Few people were betting on McKinney to win a gold medal last week because of her erratic performance in the past. She skied a magnificent opening run in the slalom, beating Schneider's first attempt by an ordinarily overwhelming margin of 1.17 seconds. But Schneider produced an explosive second run that shot her .12 ahead of McKinney to win the slalom. To most experts, that made Schneider a shoo-in for the gold. Though neither she nor McKinney is an exceptional downhiller, Schneider had finished a surprising fifth in a World Cup downhill at Vail in March '87. McKinney had never done anything close to that.
Schneider went down the Vail course in eighth position and produced a strong run that kept her in first place overall. But McKinney, racing 16th, hit the course with a vengeance. She had the second-best time at the first interval, and a previously uninspired crowd began to roar. As McKinney sped down the course, her interval times and her speeds were consistently better than Schneider's had been. The noise of the crowd became deafening. "I could actually hear them yelling through my helmet and through all that speed," McKinney said later. "That almost never happens in a downhill."
Riding the wave of cheers, McKinney beat Schneider by 1.84 seconds, giving her the combined gold by a wide margin. Schneider got the silver and her teammate Brigitte Oertli the bronze. No sooner had McKinney slid to a stop than Schneider walked over and became the first person to give the winner a hug. McKinney's eyes glistened with joy, and the crowd roared with joy, and the spirit of gloom that had pervaded the championships finally lifted.
Later, at a press conference, Schneider was as gracious as if she had won: "Tamara was the best, and for me a silver medal is a super beginning. I was fourth at Crans-Montana and I did not finish in Calgary, so this makes me feel very good."
Someone asked McKinney the requisite question: "How did you feel the moment you knew that you had won?"
She gazed silently at the reporter for a moment, and then she laughed and said, "Yahoo!"
Someone else asked if this was the best downhill she had ever run, and she said, "By far. I had a good feeling warming up this morning. I liked this downhill because it was technical [involving many turns and bumps], but it was difficult because I'm not used to having such high speed going into turns like that. I've had good races before, but I've had some bad races too. To have my good races come together here in Colorado and at home makes it a really special day. I'm still trying to figure out what I did." She paused. "It was a great day. Somebody was helping me out today."
The following day on the Beaver Creek course, Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg had a similar epiphany when he won the men's combined. By finishing third in the slalom and second in the downhill by an eye-blink .01 to the hulking Italian downhiller, Michael Mair, he took the gold by a huge margin. The silver went to Paul Accola of Switzerland and the bronze to Günther Mader of Austria. Zurbriggen skied a brave race with badly bruised ribs suffered in his earlier fall and finished fourth. Afterward he said, "I have had nothing but problems, but I think it's getting better now. I can't say I am satisfied, but I am happy for my teammate."
Girardelli's victory was no surprise. A native of Austria who has skied for Luxembourg since 1976 because his autocratic father had a disagreement with Austrian ski authorities many years ago, Girardelli has been merely superhuman on the '88-89 World Cup circuit. More versatile than any racer since Jean-Claude Killy, winner of three Olympic gold medals in '68, Girardelli has already won three downhills, a giant slalom and two slaloms this season. He has all but wrapped up the World Cup overall title, having amassed 306 points to runner-up Zurbriggen's 231.
Usually a man of grouchy mien and short temper, Girardelli spoke warmly to the press after his victory. Of the Beaver Creek course, where the men's downhill event would later be held, he said, "I don't like this course as much as the European courses because I am a technical skier, not a glider. The conditions changed completely from the training runs, and this was only a question of how good your skis were. The downhill is always a battle of equipment, but that I finished .01 of a second behind Mair today is a good omen for what comes next."
Because of his rare talent in all five events in the championships, Girardelli was considered a likely candidate to sweep all five gold medals. He was properly—and, as it turned out, rightly—modest about all this, and when he was asked by a reporter if he planned to go for five straight victories, he said, with an uncharacteristically shy smile, "I am very happy with one gold medal. For the other events, I have no ambitions. Besides, I must tell you that I have already won more than five medals—three in Crans-Montana, two in Bormio and one here."
On Saturday, Girardelli was to have gone after his second medal in Vail, in the men's downhill, but a 32-inch snowfall at Beaver Creek buried the world championships for a day, and his run for more gold was put on hold for two days. The women's downhill on Sunday finally picked up the pace of these slowly unfolding championships. It turned out to be a picture-book race run in bitter cold over sun-splashed snow, and it was won by a storybook star who announced to the world in a postrace interview on ABC. "I skied perfect."
Switzerland's daredevil Maria Walliser did exactly that. Since her arrival on the World Cup circuit in 1980, she has won 14 downhills, including Sunday's race and the world championship at Crans-Montana in 1987. She lost the downhill gold in the '84 Olympics by a scant .05 to her teammate Michela Figini and finished fourth at Calgary last year.
She's a constant presence on Swiss magazine covers, and the press in Europe seeks all manner of intimate details about her life. On the day of the downhill, the Zurich newspaper Blick printed the name of her hotel in Vail and her room number, and reported that Walliser had insisted on the special privilege of rooming alone because she required solitude to pursue her study of Far Eastern philosophies, her alpha training (a biofeedback relaxation technique) and her meditation on the circulation of energy through her body.
She doesn't seem to resent invasions of her privacy; she readily talked with the reporter from Blick about her finances. "I have made much money in the World Cup," she said. "I don't want to pile it up in a bank account. I'd rather invest it in a beautiful home." When another reporter asked her if she feared injury, she said airily, "I am not afraid of crashing. I never hurt myself because I am a Glückspilz"—which translates loosely as "lucky mushroom."
There was nothing lucky—or mushroomlike—about Walliser's triumph at Vail. As she said coolly the night before the race, "I have three chances for a gold medal—in the downhill, the giant slalom and the Super G. One of them should work out." She was ninth out of the start, just behind Figini, who was the favorite. Figini's run was flawed—by her own high standards, at least—and she wound up eighth. But Walliser was, as she would certainly agree, flawless.
Each of her interval times as she charged down the hill widened the gap over her opponents. She skied so effortlessly and with such speed that she seemed to be descending a course entirely different from the one everybody else was on. She crossed the finish line in 1:46.50, a full 1.5 seconds ahead of the silver medalist, Canada's budding star Karen Percy, who won the hearts of her countrymen in the Calgary Olympics by winning bronze medals in the downhill and the Super G. A West German unknown, Karin Dedler, edged out Heidi Zurbriggen, sister of Pirmin, for the bronze.
As Walliser stood by a fence in the finish area, giving interviews, she seemed unable to believe her own perfection. "I made no mistakes, I think," she said. "If I had made a mistake, I would not be 1.5 seconds ahead, would I?" But like the proper queen she is, she didn't take all the credit herself. Some went to the servants too. As she spoke, a tall man in a Swiss team uniform approached. carrying an armful of skis. Walliser ran to him and kissed him with such passion that the press assumed he was her boyfriend. Not so. The man proved to be Renè Schlumpf, the technician who had prepared her V‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√álkl skis for the tricky snow on the course.
On Monday, the men's downhill was run at last, and the conditions were essentially the same as they had been during Walliser's dazzling run—a bright arctic sun shining on a course covered with below-zero snow. Thus, it was surely no coincidence that the man who came in first at Beaver Creek was also wearing V‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√álkl skis that were prepared by a V‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√álkl technician. These skis, which are made in Bavaria, are known around the World Cup circuit as the best performers in deep-freeze races, and the temperature at Beaver Creek at race time was nine below zero.
But if the winner had Walliser's skis, he certainly didn't possess so much as a glimmer of her glamour—or her record as a consistent winner. His name was Hansj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árg Tauscher. He was only 21, a West German border guard by vocation and a comic impersonator of more famous skiers by avocation. He had never won a World Cup race before. His best finish has been a fifth this season and he is currently 30th in the World Cup downhill standings. He was the first German to win a world championship downhill since before World War II, and he sounded as dumbfounded as anyone over his victory: "I never thought I'd ever beat the kings of downhill, Peter Müller and Pirmin Zurbriggen. It's like having a dream."
Behind Tauscher came a phalanx of four Swiss racers—the ancient Müller, Karl Alpiger, Daniel Mahrer and William Besse. Zurbriggen, the World Cup champion in the event, had the wrong ski preparation and could do no better than a tie for 15th. For Müller, it was his fourth silver medal (plus one gold) in the world championships and Olympics. Philosophical as always, he said, "I am happy enough with another silver. We have not raced in such cold weather for a long time. In Europe it's rarely this cold, so we all had a hard time selecting the right skis. And the right skis were very, very important."
Of course, no one knew that better than Girardelli, who saw his chances for quintuple gold evaporate as he descended the mountain on what proved to be the fourth slowest run in the top seed of 15. He finished 21st and said, "I had no chance on such a course. If the equipment is not suited exactly to the conditions, you might as well forget it."
Maybe so, but as young Tauscher put it when a reporter asked him if his skis were the major reason he won, "They were important, but we must not forget that no downhill has ever been won without a man on the skis."