Jan. 27, 1992
Jan. 27, 1992

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Jan. 27, 1992

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When we conjure up the ski racing queens of decades gone by, we tend to remember the ones who were wild and woolly: the flamboyant French wisecracker, Marielle Goitschel, who ruled in the '60s; the arrogant Austrian empress, Annemarie Moser-Pröll, who ruled in the '70s; and the swaggering Swiss spitfires, Maria Walliser and Michela Figini, who ruled in the '80s. Those were queens who combined traits of temptress, tomboy, mountain moll, movie star, she-devil and dare-devil. Those were queens best described with words such as haughty, naughty, ruthless, reckless, bossy, saucy, imperious.

This is an article from the Jan. 27, 1992 issue Original Layout

But styles in monarchs tend to change as much as styles in anything else. Now that we have entered the '90s, we find that our female ski racing royalty has suddenly come to resemble flying nuns more than the fire-breathing dragon ladies of yore. There are two such queens reigning at present: Petra Kronberger, 22, of Austria, who has won 15 World Cup races in her past four seasons, and Vreni Schneider, 27, of Switzerland, who has won 38 World Cup races—more than any active skier, man or woman—in her eight seasons of competition. Between them, they could easily sweep all five Olympic gold medals available in women's ski racing in Albertville.

The Austrians have a term for the ski queens of old—knallhart, which means "hard as nails." They also have a term for the likes of Fr‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üuleins Kronberger and Schneider—einfach und natürlich, which means "simple and natural." Between them, these two ski queens are such a wholesome double dip of generosity, niceness and modesty, both so lacking in any hint of blue language or bad habits, that their mutual agent, Franz Julen, sold both of them as spokeswomen to the makers of a European cocoa drink called Ovomaltine. "Because Ovomaltine looks for advertising personalities who are open, modest, close to the home-folks and close to the snow, I used the same argument for both of them," Julen says proudly.

Kronberger, a bank clerk by trade, is shy and quiet—"too quiet," her mother says. She prays when she is afraid, and she is actually nice to her opponents—even after they have beaten her. In a Super G at Meiringen, Switzerland, last season, she finished behind Swiss racer Chantal Bournissen and made these saintly remarks to the press afterward: "It's only Chantal's second victory, and I have won 10 races already. I am happy for her and for the spectators. It must be boring when Kronberger wins all the time."

Kronberger does not win all the time, but she does win a lot, taking home the overall World Cup for the 1989-90 and 1990-91 seasons. Further, she accomplished what no other woman ski racer had ever done: She won a competition in each of ski racing's five disciplines—slalom, giant slalom, Super G, downhill and combined—and she did it in just 38 days, in December of '90 and January of '91. At the '91 world championships in Saalbach-Hinterglemm, Austria, on Jan. 26, performing under enormous home-country pressure, she won a gold in the downhill. She had been considered a reasonable bet to win gold medals in all five competitions, but that dream came to an end when she fell just before the finish of her second event, the Super G, damaging her right knee, and had to quit the championships. Nevertheless, after three weeks of therapy she was back on the slopes and won the '91 slalom title along with the overall Cup. This season, she started with a second and a third place in back-to-back slaloms in Lech, Austria, and then won her first race, a downhill at Serre Chevalier, France, late in December.

Sweet as she is, Kronberger is also tough, a quality that can be traced to her early years, when her life was marked by poverty and tragedy. When Petra was born on Feb. 21, 1969, her family was living with her maternal grandparents on their farm and trying to eke out a living. Her father, Heinrich, was and is a cement-truck driver; her mother, Waltraud, worked as a cleaning woman and as a dishwasher in a restaurant to help make ends meet. A year after Petra was born, her mother gave birth to a son, Robert. When he was 13 months old, he became ill with the flu and died suddenly. After Robert's death, Petra may have tried to be both daughter and son to her parents. She fought with the neighborhood boys, climbed trees and played with trucks as much as she played with dolls. She wore lederhosen instead of frilly dresses and, starting at the age of two, learned to ski as fast as any boy.

Her father acted as her instructor when she first took to the slopes at a small ski area next to the farm. At six, she won her first trophy, and when she was 10 a regional development coach told her parents that Petra should be enrolled in a special Skihauptschule—meaning "ski high school"—in Bad Gastein so she could train more intensively. By that time, the Kronbergers had built with their own hands a chalet-style home near the Salzach river, and family fortunes had improved somewhat. They still had to squeeze schillings to afford her $100 monthly tuition, but Waltraud Kronberger says, "We didn't want to be sorry later."

Though desperately homesick at first, she had a fine academic record even though racing caused her to miss some 200 classes a year. At 14, she transferred to a commercial school in Schladming with a similar ski racing program. After graduating, Kronberger landed a clerk's job with Raiffeisenbank, a large Austrian bank, which still pays her a full salary for her occasional work.

Kronberger's racing career was not brilliant through her middle teens, due partly to what she calls "my puberty crisis" and partly to a serious ankle injury. Then, just before her 18th birthday, she won her first Europa Cup race, a downhill in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, and soon after that she won three Austrian junior titles. "For two years I had been thinking, I am no good," she says. "I'll never be good; I have chosen the wrong profession. Then, suddenly, it all clicked into place. The next season I was on the B team."

The downhill was her forte, but she was very versatile. She made the '88 Olympic team at Calgary and finished a disappointing 11th in the combined, an event in which she had been expected to medal. But she also finished an encouraging sixth in the downhill, a race in which she was not expected to be a factor. It was not until December '89 that she won her first World Cup races—a pair of down-hills, back-to-back, at Panorama in Canada. Given her way, she might have concentrated on the downhill, but her coaches insisted that if she trained for slaloms, her downhill technique would improve too. From there, the avalanche of victories in diverse events began.

In Albertville, Kronberger could win as many as three gold medals, and possibly a silver or bronze—in the slalom, behind Schneider. But even if she brings in a chestful of precious metals and doubles the estimated $300,000 she now makes annually from skiing and endorsements, you can bet she will remain einfach und natürlich. She reigns as "Our Petra" to the 2,100 souls of her quaint village, Pfarrwerfen, near Salzburg, and also to seven million frustrated Austrians who see her as the leader of a re-surging national team that for most of the past 10 years has played second zither to a strong Swiss team. This does not please her. Recently she said, "If I am to believe the newspapers, I am supposed to be a superstar. The trouble is, I don't feel like one, and I am very glad that at least my friends and family still treat me like a normal person."

Ever the country girl, Kronberger still prefers rock climbing to cocktail parties, camping in a tent to luxury cruises, and riding a bicycle around her village to the indulgence of a sports car that any number of manufacturers would gladly pay her to drive. And she still swears by nature's healing power over that of medical science—using salsify to cure inflammation, China oil to stimulate circulation and cottage cheese to bring down swelling in her joints. But her life has changed for the better now that she is a queen. She says softly, "Because of my success the last two seasons, life has become more hectic, but we are also living better. It is funny how quickly your perception of the value of 1,000 schillings [$100] changes. One should never lose sight of how much it used to be worth."

This, of course, was spoken like a true small-town bank clerk who also happens to be one of the two true reigning queens of ski racing. The other ruling monarch brings none of the bank clerk's mentality to her feelings about money—quite the opposite. Schneider deals with her fortune as if she really were a queen: She. rarely deigns even to discuss the filthy stuff. One of her brothers, Heiri, says, "Vreni doesn't have any idea how much money she has." Her agent, Franz Julen, says, "Vreni is hardly interested in her contracts. She wants a vague idea of what it's all about; then she says yes or no, and forgets about it."

She still lives with her family in the modest old house in which she grew up in the tiny mountain village of Elm (pop. 800). Her father. Kaspar, a former shoemaker, has had a shop in town for many years, and it is still there—though next door there is now a very upscale sporting goods store that Vreni and Heiri run together. Just down the street, her older sister, Barbara, operates the restaurant Sonne, which is filled with Vreni's trophies.

Elm has a tiny ski area where Vreni took up the sport at the age of three. Her racing career began in the first grade, and it has all been pretty much a matter of being No. 1. "She was second in her first race, but after that she won every race at school," recalls Heiri. She has always been fanatical about skiing, so mad about the sport that even now the Swiss women's coach, Jan Tischhauser, says, "When she sees snow, she wants to ski—day and night if possible. Other racers must force themselves to ski, but she enjoys it and that's the difference."

And what a difference it is. Her total of 38 World Cup victories—20 giant slaloms, 17 slaloms and one combined—has been bettered only by the super Swede Ingemar Stenmark, with 86; by Austria's nonpareil Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll, with 62; and by Switzerland's versatile Pirmin Zurbriggen, with.40. In Schneider's greatest season, 1988-89, she won 14 World Cup races, plus the overall World Cup and titles in both the GS and the slalom. In all, she has won two Olympic gold medals (for the slalom and the GS in-Calgary '88) and three world championship golds (the GS in '87, the GS in '89 and the slalom in '91).

Last season Schneider won only three World Cup races, and though she still got the GS title, many experts were wondering if she had slowed down. They stopped wondering in November, after the very first slalom of the World Cup season: Vreni seemed buried hopelessly deep in the pack after the first run—in eighth place, .80 of a second behind the leader, Kronberger. But with a powerful second run, using an aggressive new wide-stance attack that took her closer to the gates, she won. After that, she won two more GSs, and by mid-January. Schneider and Kronberger were in a tight race for the lead in the World Cup standings.

Queen Vreni is a favorite to win golds in the slalom and the GS at Albertville, while Queen Petra is a favorite to win golds in the downhill and the combined, and possibly the Super G. If the two of them clean up as expected, it will be a triumph for wholesomeness, for girl-next-door types everywhere—and, not least, for Ovomaltine.