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On Slippery Slopes

Feb. 24, 1992
Feb. 24, 1992

Table of Contents
Feb. 24, 1992

Basketball
Wrestling
XVI Olympic Winter Games
Jim Courier
Livin' Large
Scottie Pippen
Horse Racing
Point After

On Slippery Slopes

A pair of gritty North Americans dominated the downhill

By William Oscar Johnson

Jean-Claude Killy, god of the Albertville Olympics, proclaimed: "I said I would relax on the third day...and now I can sit back and enjoy the rest of the Games." So on the third day Killy rested. After all, he didn't have to pull on long underwear and go to work as a ski-racing hero to justify his existence. For those who did, it was a mean and testing week, a week of awful pressure and awful mistakes, anything but relaxing. No-names blew out household names. Kings fell, queens got hurt. A pair of North Americans, including a lass from Alaska, finished one-two in a downhill.

This is an article from the Feb. 24, 1992 issue Original Layout

The Alaskan interloper was Hilary Lindh, a heretofore hard-luck kid who was lucky enough this time out to draw fast snow, and she rode that track to the first U.S. women's downhill medal since Cindy Nelson won a bronze at Innsbruck in 1976. On a long—1¾ miles—and very difficult course Lindh got better with every jump and bump to finish second, less than a finger-snap behind Kerrin Lee-Gartner of Canada.

How unexpected was Lindh's silver? Well, it caught her hometown of Juneau, presumably populated by those who know her best, completely by surprise. Her dad, Craig, a natural resources consultant who used to set off avalanches with explosives as part of his job, had to be awakened by a 2:15 a.m. phone call delivering the news of his daughter's stunning success. In Juneau a welcome-home-Hilary committee was hastily organized, and by the time Craig and Barbara Lindh arrived at the Eaglecrest Ski Area for a couple of celebratory runs, the lift tickets had been specially printed: SILVR FOR HILRY.

Back in France the shy Hilary was philosophical. "Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn't," she said. "It doesn't matter what could have happened. This is what did happen."

What also happened on the slippery slopes of France last week was a small epidemic of upsets by upstarts. The off-form results started with the men's combined, a doubleheader competition that opens with a downhill and continues with a two-run slalom. The favorites were the famous: Paul Accola, the Swiss leader of this season's World Cup; Luxembourg's Marc Girardelli, the veteran who had won every kind o( Alpine skiing prize except an Olympic medal; Austria's Günther Mader, a versatile racer who had already won the bronze medal in the downhill; Mader's teammate Hubert Strolz, the 1988 gold medalist in the combined. Each went down in ignominy. Girardelli and Mader fell early in the downhill portion, and Accola fouled up in the first run of the slalom. As for Strolz, he placed 13th in the downhill—very good for a slalom specialist like him—and he followed that effort with a terrific first slalom run. Then Strolz slashed through the gates a second time, just as beautifully, until four gates from the finish on flat terrain he simply slid off the course. "I was already at the finish in my thoughts," he said later.

With the mighty fallen, in marched a pair of unknown foot soldiers from Italy. Josef Polig placed sixth in the downhill and fifth in the slalom, but thanks to the arcane scoring of the combined event, those results added up to a gold medal. The silver went to Gianfranco Martin, who placed second in the downhill and seventh in the slalom. The day after their shocking one-two finish, Polig and Martin were helicoptered to Sestriere in Italy's Cottian Alps for a hastily arranged celebration. Hundreds of children had been let out of school, ski lessons had been canceled, and the welcome-home-Josef-and-Gianfranco committee had already gone to work. Among the thousand there to greet the no-names by name was the generalissimo himself. Alberto Tomba, winner of gold medals in the giant slalom and slalom in Calgary in 1988 and a favorite to win both events again at the Albertville Games this week. The great man roared up to the medalists on a snowmobile, cm-braced them both and cried "Bravi!" Tomba gazed at the gold medal Polig was wearing but superstitiously refrained from touching it, because, he explained, that might cause sfiga—literally, "disfigurement"—in his races this week.

Sfiga seemed to be working its nasty ways in the men's Super G, where the local hero, Franck Piccard of the Savoie, who won the gold in the event in Calgary four years ago, came a cropper in astonishingly short order. Just last week Piccard had touched off a national celebration when he burst out of a 23rd-position start in the men's downhill—the centerpiece Alpine event—and sped down a mean, chewed-up course to finish second. Now, in the Super G, he burst forth again, but seven gates into his run, while gliding over a sunny and relatively flat section of the course, poor Piccard simply eased onto the edge of the wrong ski and fell, almost casually, on his side.

Starting third, Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt, a child of 20 who is in his third year of World Cup competition, put up a time of 1:13.04, and no one could top it. Starting fourth was Girardelli, the best all-around skier on earth but still without that Olympic medal. Back on form after falling in both the downhill and the combined downhill, he roared down the Super G course in 1:13.77 and got the silver. After the race Girardelli was asked if he felt am different now that he finally had an Olympic medal. "No," he replied deadpan, "it's exactly the same." He paused, then added, "I'm only joking. It's for sure a different feeling. Today was a victory for me even though I didn't win."

Only a win would be a victor)' for Austria's Petra Kronberger in the women's combined. Kronberger, 22, the overall World Cup winner for the past two years and the leader this year, is regarded as the finest and most versatile female skier alive. Her first task would be to conquer Mèribel's downhill course, appropriately named Le Roc de Fer ("The Iron Rock"). Le Roc is a hard, dangerous run—"the women's Kitzbühel," said U.S. women's head coach Paul Major—and it took a heavy toll. Wendy Fisher of the U.S. and Austrian star downhiller Sabine Ginther had terrible falls in training for the combined downhill on a steep bump dubbed Noodles by the racers. Fisher suffered a broken thumb and leg injuries; Ginther fractured a disk in her back, ending her season and perhaps her career. During the race itself Noodles threw another American, Kristin Krone, into a terrifying spill. Fortunately Krone, who is nicknamed Crash, was unhurt.

Amid the combined downhill wreckage Kronberger skied a cool but daring run and finished first. In the next day's combined slalom she placed third, and the overall result easily gave her the gold. A pleasant surprise in the combined competition was provided by another unheralded American in her first Olympics, 21-year-old Krista Schmidinger, of Lee, Mass. She finished second, behind Kronberger, in the downhill portion of the event and raved about the daunting Roc: "] love this course!" Schmidinger finished 14th in the slalom and wound up 11th overall. Her good showing proved a harbinger for the U.S.

Kronberger's victory in the combined led members of the press to expectations of a multimedal Olympics, and they began to pester Kronberger about the possibility of winning five golds. Laughing lightly, the ever cheerful Kronberger replied, "I am not an ‚àö√∫bermensch [superhuman]. I don't just press a button and say, 'I'd like a gold, please.' If I don't win any more medals, I won't be unhappy."

That's good, since Kronberger was shut out in her very next event, the downhill.

Le Roc de Fer was in a peculiar state on the day of this race. At times the light was bright enough to define the terrain quite sharply. At times the light dimmed, and the Roc's wild contours turned visually flat and difficult to discern—especially for skiers streaking along at 60 mph. And at times a softly falling snow coated the course. The downhill would be a different race for different racers.

The first six proceeded without mishap. Then Chantal Bournissen of Switzerland, a favorite, fell just above the finish. She was unhurt, but the race was delayed for several minutes while workers repaired the course. Snow continued falling, and by the time the competition resumed, a thin layer of fresh flakes had covered the Roc. Katja Seizinger of Germany skied down in 1:52.67, and Kronberger followed, .06 of a second slower. They stood one-two. Next came Lee-Gartner, traveling on a course that was the barest bit slicker because of Seizinger's and Kronberger's snow-removing runs. Lee-Gartner covered it in 1:52.55 and took over first place. Then Veronika Wallinger of Austria followed in 1:52.64—she moved into second—and it was clear that the course was getting fractionally faster.

The 16th racer was Lindh. She had never finished better than sixth in a World Cup downhill. Her training runs in Mèribel had been just so-so, with the worst a 10th-place finish the day before the race. She had missed an invaluable chance last winter to compete in a World Cup downhill on Le Roc de Fer when the U.S. team was suddenly hustled out of Mèribel at the outset of the gulf war to protect the skiers from potential terrorist acts in Europe. "The war really messed things up," said Lindh. "We lost a really good chance to train."

But on this important day Lindh looked as if she had been raised on the Roc. "She just left yesterday behind," said Major.

Lindh started out a bit slowly. "There is. a big turn after the face that I wasn't very clean on," she said later. "That made me mad, and I wanted to catch up." She was only eighth fastest at the first interval, but she started making up remarkable chunks of time. "In the middle section of the course, where all the bumps were, I felt pretty good and aggressive. I never had problems with any of the jumps: I didn't go very far in the air." Moving ever faster over the day's slickest snow, Lindh streaked toward the finish. "At the bottom I skied my best." She crossed the line in second place—a bare .06 of a second behind Lee-Gartner's time.

Despite Lindh's fine run, the predominantly European crowd remained eerily quiet, much as it had when Lee-Gartner Hashed over the finish line in first. Lindh had no idea if she had raced boldly or badly. "I didn't think I did real well," she said later. "Then I looked at the scoreboard." She began jumping up and down for joy while still wearing her skis. "That little dance looked pretty funny, with skis and poles," she said, smiling.

It had been one of the tightest of Olympic races; only .18 of a second separated Lee-Gartner's gold medal from Kronberger's fifth place. However, because the race was so close, there was much grousing among some Europeans about how various subtle changes in course conditions might have unfairly benefited the upstart North Americans. Seizinger, in particular, was irked, and she complained to the German press: "This downhill is too difficult. We shouldn't have to race on it when we can't see well."

"Cry me a river," commented Major.

As for the two joyous medal winners from the New World, they paid no mind to the grumbling. Each had triumphed over pain and defeat to gain the Olympic podium. Each had come too far to let any negativity spoil the moment.

Lee-Gartner grew up skiing at the tiny Red Mountain ski area in British Columbia, the same little hill that produced the Canadian heroine Nancy Greene, who also won an Olympic gold medal in France (in the giant slalom at Grenoble in 1968). Unlike Greene, who was a star on the World Cup circuit, Lee-Gartner had not won a race in seven years of World Cup competition. She had endured five knee operations and a bad ankle injury before reaching this pinnacle.

Lindh, too, had suffered serious injuries. A skiing prodigy, she had progressed from the Eaglecrest slope to the Romark Ski Academy in Salt Lake City by age 14 and was a star American on the international junior circuit. In 1987, when she was 17, she knocked off two thirds of the cartilage protecting the bone in her right knee in a fall in Norway during the junior world championship downhill—an event she had won the year before. Dr. Richard Steadman, the U.S. Ski Team's renowned fixer of knees, said, "It was one of the worst injuries I have seen." He doubted Lindh would ever ski again.

Grimly she fought back, and in 1988, only a year after the crash, she started in the downhill at the Calgary Games. She did not finish. "I missed a gate," she said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself that year. I was hoping for a miracle."

Four years later she got one.

"I have definitely been kind of on hold for the last few years," she said after receiving her medal. "I have been on a plateau. I never made my breakthrough, and it has been frustrating. Now, no matter what happens, I've always got this."

True enough. And in a week of unpredictable weather and unpredictable skiing, Lindh's Alaska brand of homespun philosophizing could stand as well for everyone in the Alpine Olympic environment, even the relaxed Mssr. Killy himself. As he knows better than most, in skiing, sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn't. And besides: L'important, ce n'est pas ce qui await pu se passer, mais ce qui s'est rèellement arrivè. Which means, rather roughly: "It doesn't matter what could have happened. This is what did happen."

PHOTOCARL YARBROUGHCanada's Lee-Gartner was iron-willed and rock-solid in her dash down Le Roc de Fer.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERSchmidinger flew out of nowhere to impress in the combined.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERThe unsung Lindh stayed low to the snow to make up time in a big way.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERGirardelli didn't win, but he allowed that his first Olympic medal felt good all the same.ILLUSTRATION