There it was in "Ski Racing," North America's bible of the sport: the cruel verdict on what's wrong with the U.S. Alpine ski team, as delivered by Phil Mahre, the greatest American ski racer ever. "It's the kids, not the team," said Mahre, who won two Olympic medals and three overall World Cup titles before retiring in 1984. "We always hear about how the ski team doesn't do this, the ski team doesn't do that. There's nothing wrong with the team. It's the kids on the team. They give them all the best opportunities and they don't take advantage.... I grew up on a mountain and I grew up with a work ethic. These are rich kids who have always had everything handed to them."
Now, those are fighting words, churlish and ugly, and sooner or later Mahre will probably have to eat them. Common sense says that on average, the U.S. ski team now is neither richer nor more spoiled than it was in Mahre's day. But the fact remains that in the last six years the team has been so inept that anger and insult seem to be the only suitable responses to its performance.
For example, the last time an American woman won a World Cup Alpine race was three years ago, when the often-injured Tamara McKinney finished first in the slalom in Mellau, Austria, for her 18th World Cup victory since she started on that circuit in 1978. The last time an American man won a World Cup race was six years ago, when Bill Johnson, the single-season flash, came out on top in a downhill at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia.
That same year, 1984, at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, the U.S. men and women together collected five medals—three golds and two silvers—but four years later, at the '88 Games in Calgary, the highest any U.S. Alpine skier finished was a lowly ninth, in the women's Super G. In 1982 the U.S. team won the Nations Cup, which is awarded to the team with the highest number of World Cup points at the end of the season. Last season the U.S. team plunged to 11th in World Cup points, its worst finish ever.
March 5, 1990
This list of failures could go on and on. However, the question of where the dead weight of blame should be placed matters less than the question of what comes next. And rich or not, a bunch of kids may at last be pulling the U.S. team out of the pits.
This season has been slightly better than 1988-89. Still no individual World Cup victories. Still only eighth in the Nations Cup standings. Still no one leading in a single World Cup discipline, let alone in the overall World Cup standings. Worse, the best U.S. skier, the effervescent McKinney, 27, has missed the entire season with a broken leg and may retire this year.
That would be a loss of cosmic proportions. Not only did McKinney produce the only medals for the U.S. at the '89 world championships, in Vail (a gold in the combined event and a bronze in the slalom), but she also has been a major U.S. producer of World Cup points for several seasons. Last year, when the whole team, men and women combined, collected a pathetic 232 points, the indomitable Miss McK accounted for exactly half of them.
John McMurtry, director of the U.S. Alpine team, is quick to point out that even without McKinney, the American team has already gotten more points this season, 262, than it did all of last season, with 20% of the current schedule remaining. This is pretty thin gruel for anyone who's truly hungry for success, but it is a measurable improvement that at least upgrades the team from malodorous to mediocre.
McMurtry, 39, is a smart, soft-spoken, relentlessly optimistic coaching veteran who directed the brilliant women's slalom team between 1976 and '84, then left the organization. He returned in '87, just in time to watch the U.S. bottom out. "What happened to us—dropping all the way to 11th in the Nations Cup—should never have happened," says McMurtry. "Coming from a country with 11 million skiers, how could that happen? It indicated a lack of structure, a severing of continuity in the administration of the team, a massive vacuum between the ski team and the local clubs, where our bright young kids come from. That will not happen again. We are laying the groundwork for continuity into the 21st century."
Continuity? Into the 21st century? The U.S. ski team? Such a statement is almost beyond belief, for this has long been a revolving-door operation, with major changes coming at least every four years. The most devastating example occurred at the end of the golden 1983-84 season. First, Phil Mahre and his twin brother, Steve, retired. They had finished one-two, respectively, in the slalom at the Sarajevo Olympics and had racked up a total of 23 World Cup victories between them. Christin Cooper, a silver medalist in the GS in Sarajevo, a triple medalist at the 1982 world championships and winner of four World Cup races, quit too. So did many members of the men's and women's coaching staffs, as well as the top executives who had raised funds for the team, set policy and run the administrative machinery. Among the executives was Alpine director Bill Marolt, who became athletic director at the University of Colorado.
And what did these people leave behind for the next regime? Not enough money, not enough corporate support and, god knows, not enough young world-class racers fashioned from the raw material in the grass-roots racing programs.
Howard Peterson, 38, has been the chief executive of the U.S. ski team since 1988. Of the 1984 desertions he says, "The team went through a cataclysm then. There were only 30 racers left on the national team, and there was no development program at all. Billy Marolt didn't have much money and he did what he could. It was about as bad as it could get."
Some bloody budget-cutting took place, followed by even bloodier feuds and battles among coaches, racers and team executives. There were a couple of bright spots, though. At the 1985 world championships, in Bormio, Italy, 17-year-old Diann Roffe, from upstate New York, won a gold medal in the giant slalom, and three other Americans, including McKinney, took home bronze medals.
Thereafter, losing took hold. Johnson and Debbie Armstrong had both won gold medals at Sarajevo, but neither prevailed in a World Cup race after 1984. Roffe followed her victory in Bormio with a descent into oblivion that left her ranked 91st overall at the end of the '87-88 season. Every year the results seemed to get worse.
Yet hope is rising at ski-team headquarters, in Park City, Utah, and it doesn't sound quite so much like the desperate optimism of condemned men as it has many times in the past. Says TV commentator Bob Beattie, who has been close to the team for more than a quarter of a century, first as its coach and now as a member of its board, "Two years from now this will be a much better team. The structure is there; the attention to junior racers is there. People will tell you they've heard all this before, but this is different. It might take six or eight years before the U.S. is a power again, but this time the foundation is there to make it happen."
The chief cause for hope is a group of young skiers known around Park City as The Seventies, because they were all born in 1970. Deb LaMarche, the Alpine team's director of development, says, "I don't know what it was about that year, but we have a mob of terrific racers born then—15 of them, at least. They're all pushing each other, and they should continue to get better all through the '90s."
The Seventies made their mark last April, in the 1989 world junior championships at Mount Alyeska in Alaska, where three of them won a total of four gold medals—Tommy Moe, who comes from Alaska, in the men's Super G and the men's combined; Jeremy Nobis in the men's giant slalom; and Kim Schmidinger in the women's GS. The Seventies also accounted for three other medals—two silvers, in the GS and the combined, by Kim Schmidinger's twin, Krista, and one by Gibson LaFountaine in the women's slalom—and three other skiers placed in the top five in their events. No U.S. junior team has ever approached such a performance.
Moe, who competes in all four disciplines and was first touted as a future star when he was 15, stunned the ski world when, at the still tender age of 19, he had a 12th-place finish in the downhill at the 1989 world championships. While Moe has produced no outstanding results so far this winter on his first full World Cup tour, he exudes enthusiasm. "The team morale is really good, and we're just starting to come on strong," he says. "We've got great years ahead. From '91 through '95 there's a world championship or an Olympics every year."
The men's team may have good morale, but it has not had a lot of good World Cups results. The best individual performance of the season was a startling fourth in the downhill at Cortina d'Ampezzo by A.J. Kitt, 21, who had not finished better than 12th in a World Cup event. Beyond that, the best excuse for celebration was in another downhill: Bill Hudson finished 13th in the 50th-anniversary running of the Hahnenkamm, in Kitzbühel, Austria, which was especially impressive because he had started 43rd.
As usual, the women's team has fared much better than the men's. U.S. women have 205 World Cup points this season, while the men have a scant 57. The women have 36 finishes in the top 15; the men, only eight. Cooper offers the logical, and frequently cited, explanation for why the women skiers outperform the men: "For women, ski racing is one of only a few professional sports they can compete in—tennis and golf being the other obvious ones. There is no baseball, no basketball, no hockey, no football to keep us from serious ski racing. The best male athletes have all those other possibilities that they can choose from before they commit to ski racing."
This season the top American woman has been Roffe—at long last. After her too-much-too-soon victory in Bormio, she reemerged this year, at age 22. She has two seconds and a third in giant slaloms, has finished among the top 15 in 10 of her 18 World Cup starts and is second in the giant-slalom standings. "I had that one shot in the dark when I was young, and I couldn't keep it up," says Roffe. "But the taste of winning is something you never forget. Now I'm ready to be a threat all the time." Another all-the-time threat has been the surprising Kristi Terzian, also 22, who has 13 top-15 finishes in four events—Super G, giant slalom, slalom and combined—after never finishing better than 17th in a World Cup race before this season.
Of course, all this doesn't add up to a single World Cup victory in the 54 races Americans have entered in the 1989-90 season. The U.S. is still dealing in failure. Sylvain Dao-Lena, head coach of the French men's team and the U.S. women's head coach from 1973 to '76, is not optimistic. "It's difficult to create a strong base and a good team when there is no strong tradition of winning," Dao-Lena says.
McMurtry, however, insists that change is afoot. "For one thing, the age of World Cup winners is going up," he says. "We used to discard a skier if he hadn't won something by the time he was 21 or 22. Now we know he is probably just approaching his peak at that age. The sport is on a much higher plane now. Everyone is in rock-hard condition. It's become rare for teenagers to win World Cup races. They simply can't compete against the experience and the conditioning of racers in their late 20's. We've got all these kids who haven't won anything, but by today's standards they're very young."
American ski racers used to have to make a choice between competing seriously and attending college. "There was no in-between," says McMurtry. "We actually discouraged good racers from thinking about higher education. This hurt in our competition to win good male athletes away from other sports, because football and basketball pretty much insisted that a kid at least enroll in college. We now encourage the kids both to go to college and to ski-race. The Alpine team has 15 kids on scholarships. We have tutors on the road for them, and we mandate time for courses during training camps and when kids are healing from injuries."
Most important, perhaps, is the new emphasis on developing teenagers at the home-mountain level of competition. Not only does the Park City headquarters boast a computer program that tracks the race results of some 20,000 Alpine skiers as well as the individual physiological profiles of some 800 elite athletes, but it also keeps in constant touch with ski racing's grass roots. "We have an open channel, so we hear about hot new kids and they hear from us," says Peterson. "We are very serious about recruiting and development. In the past when our top World Cup coaches burned out after a few years of pressure and intense travel, we had no other jobs for them. Now we're going to ask them to work in regional development. Within the next year or so, I guarantee you our highest coaching salaries will be paid to head coaches—and to regional coaches."
This is all quite revolutionary by U.S. ski-team standards. However, if enlightened management and loving encouragement don't produce a multitude of winners by the turn of the century, then perhaps it will be time to ask Phil Mahre to recruit a team of poor kids.