When the curtain fell Sunday on the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships, at Vail, Colo., the stage was filled with as outrageously diverse a cast of characters as this 58-year-old mountain melodrama had ever produced. Main players included big names and no-names, playboys and choirboys, a would-be movie queen, a yodeler's daughter, a shoemaker's daughter, an undertaker's son, a pair of Yugoslav lovers, an Italian Peeping Tom, an American equestrienne and an ersatz Luxembourger who wishes he were an astronaut.
Gold medals the first week were distributed among three certified celebrities and one nonentity. The first, for the women's combined, went to the U.S. team's only really first-class skier, Tamara McKinney, 26, who is also an accomplished horsewoman as well as the alltime leading World Cup winner among American skiers. Next, Marc Girardelli, 25, the Austrian-born star of Luxembourg's ski team and a student of astronomy who would rather travel into space than race across snow (even though he has been the winningest competitor on the men's World Cup circuit this year), handily won the men's combined. Then Maria Walliser, 25, budding Swiss movie actress and extraordinary downhiller who won that event at the 1987 world championship in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, repeated her triumph in Vail. Last and least came Hansj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árg Tauscher, 21, a border guard from Oberstdorf, West Germany, who had never finished better than fifth in a World Cup race and yet swept past a strong field of rich and famous competitors to win the men's downhill.
The same pattern—or nonpattern—prevailed in the second week. First came the women's slalom on Tuesday. Because of her superb performance in the combined, McKinney was one of the favorites. So were Vreni Schneider, 24, the magnificent Swiss slalom specialist who had won the combined silver behind McKinney and had broken records for both men and women by winning 10 consecutive World Cup slalom and giant slalom races this season, and Mateja Svet, 20, a very talented Yugoslav who had won three medals (a silver in the giant slalom and bronzes in the slalom and Super G) in Crans-Montana but had only two second places as her best finishes this season.
The first run was won by McKinney, applying her usual light-footed power over a course set by Martin Rufener, the U.S. women's head slalom coach. He had arranged the gates in a relatively straight layout—a format that was, not coincidentally, to Tamara's liking. She finished a scant .04 of a second ahead of Svet but well ahead of the rest of the field, including Schneider, whose ragged run put her in eighth place, a horrendous 1.47 behind McKinney. All season, the Swiss phenomenon had come up with herculean second runs to win after putting herself in the hole with mediocre first runs, but she had never been this far behind.
February 20, 1989
The course for the second run was set by a Swede and the path was curvier. Schneider made an amazing run, blasting down in 46.04, a huge .74 ahead of the field. Svet then ran the course in 46.86, far faster than McKinney, who skied cautiously toward the bottom and finished third. McKinney was elated with her second medal of the championships. At a press conference someone asked what her greatest concerns had been before the race, and she replied cheerily, "My feet. They were completely frozen." Racers had been training in -20° temperatures a day earlier and had run the slalom at -24°. At the press conference, Tamara took off a ski boot and revealed two blackened toes—a touch of frostbite—on her left foot.
Schneider's second silver at Vail would have been a fine result for most skiers, but because of her great season before Vail, she had been expected to do even better. As for Svet, this was a sweet victory, the first Alpine skiing gold medal—in world championship or Olympic competition—ever won by a Yugoslav.
The day after Svet sent gold medal vibes of joy across Yugoslavia, another member of that country's small ski team (three women, five men) came slashing down the men's Super G course in 22nd position and rocketed past the likes of Girardelli and Italy's double Olympic gold medal winner, Alberto Tomba, to win the bronze medal. Tomaz Cizman, 23, had never finished higher than fourth in World Cup competition, but what made his feat all the more Yugoeuphoric was the fact that he and Mateja Svet are sweethearts. '"I cannot say that Mateja's victory did not inspire me," said Cizman later.
What inspired the winner of the men's Super G is not so easy to say. Martin Hangl's name was not of the household variety even in Switzerland. A member of the powerhouse Swiss team since 1981, Hangl, 26, had never won a race until he finally broke through in a Super G and a slalom in Saalbach, Austria, late last season. He then won a Super G in Laax, Switzerland, in January. Hangl was unable to land a commercial sponsor, and so he wore the name of his family's hotel on his headband. In the Vail Super G, Hangl was first out of the gate and posted a time of 1:38.81. It stood against all attacks—including that of Hangl's idol and superstar teammate, Pirmin Zurbriggen, who got the silver. Zurbriggen, who was in pain from an eggbeater fall he took in training the week before, said, "I still felt something from falling. It is not possible after two, three days to be already completely right. I can be happy with second place." The Swiss newspaper Blick reported that the deeply religious Zurbriggen, who hides his tigerish toughness behind the mien of a choirboy, held a stamp bearing the likeness of Pope John Paul II while he waited in the finish area to see if his silver medal would stand up.
The results of the women's Super G, run earlier that same day, were eerily similar: The first racer also put up a time that ultimately won, and her name was no better known than Martin Hangl's. She was Ulrike Maier, 21, of Austria, and she had never won a World Cup race, though she had finished second twice in Super Gs. After her victory, she was accompanied everywhere she went in Vail by her father, Balthasar, who yodeled frequently and beamed a horsey grin at any camera pointed at him.
The men's giant slalom the next day had a polyglot field of 101, including racers from such skiing paradises as the Philippines, South Korea and Liberia. The popular favorite was Tomba, 22, the Italian master slalomist, playboy and Peeping Tom. Early in the competition Tomba and a teammate had been spotted spying from outside a first-floor undraped hotel window at a partially undraped American ski team member—female. The two eyeballers scampered off, chuckling, and 24 hours later Tomba returned with more cohorts to occupy the same vantage point. No one took it seriously, least of all Tomba.
All season long there had been some question as to whether he was taking his ski racing any more seriously than his window peeping. After winning nine World Cup races last season and two gold medals at the Calgary Olympics last year, he had won only one race this season, a slalom before a wildly screaming crowd of 20,000 Italian fans at Madonna di Campiglio in December.
Although he had finished among the top three in five other races this season, both the press and Italian sports functionaries had criticized him bitterly. Late in January the chairman of the Italian Olympic Committee, Arrigo Gattai, accused him of "summer laziness" in his training.
He did not seem lazy last week. In the Super G he finished sixth, not bad considering that his best-ever result in that event was a fourth. Then in the giant slalom he fell and slid on his left side before making a supernatural recovery to wind up 15th. His second run was vintage Tomba—a savage yet flawless attack—and he salvaged seventh place.
The gold medal went to a spectacularly colorless Austrian carpenter, Rudolf Nierlich, 22, the son of the undertaker in the Austrian village of St. Wolfgang. For years he hadn't been able to put two runs together for a victory. He finally got his first World Cup triumph last season, then won a GS and a slalom last month. At the press conference after his victory, the shy, tongue-tied Nierlich couldn't bring himself to talk into the microphone; he whispered his answers to an interpreter, who translated them over the P.A. system. When asked to explain his victory, Nierlich replied in nearly inaudible Austrian German, "Wenn's l‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üuft, dann l‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üuft's," meaning roughly, "When you're on, you're on."
That same race marked the first appearance in these championships by the immortal old smoothy from Sweden, Ingemar Stenmark. This noble fellow first appeared on the World Cup circuit in 1973 and went on to win 85 World Cup races (52 more than Zurbriggen, the runner-up). Stenmark plans to retire on March 12, six days before his 33rd birthday. As he crossed the finish of the giant slalom, a woman began to weep and a crowd of Swedes chanted, " Stenmark for alltid!" ("Stenmark forever!") Incredibly, he finished a stylish sixth.
Intimations of immortality lurked among the gates on the women's giant slalom, too, for Schneider at last came to life. Though she had graciously insisted that she loved having two silver medals, she finally told a Swiss reporter, "I have to admit that second place in the slalom hurt a little. I won all five slalom races this winter and then I lost the biggest one. Today I'll risk everything to win the giant slalom."
Schneider is from tough peasant stock, the daughter of a shoemaker in the medieval mountain village of Elm, the last bit of civilization at the far end of the Sernf Valley. After she won golds in the giant slalom and the slalom at Calgary, the town fathers posted a sign that read VILLAGE OF THE DOUBLE OLYMPIC CHAMPION VRENI SCHNEIDER, WE CONGRATULATE HER! Her goal in Vail last Saturday was gold in the GS and, for once, Vreni attacked on the first run as well as the second. She was fastest in both and put up a time of 2:29.37, a full 1.13 seconds ahead of runner-up Carole Merle of France.
The last event, the men's slalom on Sunday, was like war, with men falling in bunches. A total of 89 started. Only 47 finished the first run, and by the end of the second, no more than 31 of the original army had managed to make the bottom. Among those who went down were Zurbriggen, Stenmark and Tomba, who finished the week with no medals, an embarrassment that contributed to the firing a few hours later of the Italian team coach, Josef Messner. Among the minority that finished was the blue-eyed carpenter from St. Wolfgang, Nierlich, who became the only double gold medal winner at Vail.
In Vail the Swiss had triumphed once again. They won 11 medals—three golds, five silvers and three bronzes. Next best were the gradually improving Austrians, who took six—three golds, two silvers and a bronze. And it seemed fitting that in the first U.S.-hosted world championship since 1950, the American team seemed at last to be rising out of the doldrums of the past few years. Besides McKinney's double medal performance, nine of her younger teammates had top-15 finishes.
All in all, the show in Vail proved to be great winter theater.