The last time most of the world saw Julie Parisien she was a profile in pain, anguish and courage. That was during the women's slalom at the 1992 Winter Olympics. Parisien was competing with four temporary front teeth and 13 stitches in her lower lip, thanks to a violent collision with a tourist skier a month before the Games. She also had a cast on her broken left wrist, the result of smacking a gate pole in a race a few days after that collision. After the first run Parisien led by .06 of a second, but she frittered away that advantage in the second and final run and finished fourth, by .05, an eye blink out of the medals. Along with the fifth place she had gotten in the giant slalom (GS) the day before, it was a sensational performance for Parisien, a 20-year-old Olympic rookie. But she was devastated. "Fourth place is the worst place in the Olympics," she lamented after the race. "It sucks."
But by the end of the season, the buoyant Parisien had recovered her spirits. She won the last World Cup slalom, in Sundsvall, Sweden, and finished the year No. 1 in the Fèdèration Internationale de Ski (FIS) slalom rankings. "I'm glad all that happened to me—the Olympics, all that pressure, the trauma of the injuries. It was like a crash course in becoming a mature athlete," said Parisien as she prepared for this year's World Cup competition, which began last weekend in Park City, Utah. "Now I'm ready. I truly believe I can win every race I enter. Of course, I know in my mind that I won't win every one, but I believe in my heart that it is not impossible."
Of course it is impossible, as she found in the first race, a giant slalom, last Saturday. Wan and dehydrated from a fierce bout with the flu, she barely managed a desultory ninth-place finish. But Sunday's race, a slalom, was something else again—flu notwithstanding. "I felt exhausted in the morning," she reported after her win in the slalom. "I couldn't eat and I was still queasy." None of it showed on the hill on this brilliant day. Standing second after the first run, Parisien blasted down the rather flat course and finished .96 of a second ahead of the field. Then she waited for Pernilla Wiberg of Sweden, the first-run leader, to come down the course. When Wiberg crossed the finish line .03 slower than Parisien's time, the American looked at the crowd and let out a slightly awed "Whew."
After last week, Julie Madeleine Josephine Parisien, 21, seems destined to be the American female skiing star of the 1990s. "I plan to ski eight more years," she says. "This year I want to become a four-event skier—slalom, GS, Super G and downhill. My goal is to win the overall World Cup title—possibly this season but next year for sure. I want to become one of the winningest women ski racers in history. I want to be up there with Tamara McKinney and Vreni Schneider."
December 7, 1992
That's rare company. The retired McKinney won 18 World Cup races in a 12-year career, more than any other American skier in history, and the Swiss veteran slalom specialist Schneider has 40 victories, more than any woman except that arrogant Austrian empress, Annemarie Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll, who won 62 before her retirement in 1980. Parisien has a long way to go. Until Park City she had just two World Cup victories—the Sundsvall slalom and a GS in Waterville Valley, N.H., in 1991. Now she has three, and that's more than any other member of the U.S. team has won, male or female. (The only other active American to win a regular-season World Cup race is downhiller AJ Kitt, but he has been out since he sprained his left ankle while playing pickup basketball in early November.)
Last season was Parisien's first as a full-time World Cup competitor, and she was often shaken by the tremors of inexperience and immaturity. Says Patrick Lang, a veteran French ski journalist, "Julie has fantastic potential, but she didn't have the necessary strong nerves on a number of occasions." Says Diann Roffe-Steinrotter, Parisien's teammate and constant rival, "Julie has to learn patience. She becomes very upset when she's not at the top of the heap. Still, she could win the overall World Cup hands down if she has the perseverance to gut it out and become more consistent." Says U.S. women's coach Paul Major, "Julie is now capable of winning as often as Vreni Schneider. With her busted teeth, her Olympic losses, her winning again, Julie learned as much last year alone as most athletes learn in a whole career. She's now got the concentration she needs to succeed."
Parisien believes that the bad things that have happened to her can be turned into good things. "Injuries, emotional stress, lost races can help you in competition, if you know how to use them," she says. "They force you to remember that you arc human and that you have to deal with negative events as a test of your will and your determination. That's what my parents say when a bad thing happens: 'Look at it as a test." If you do that, an injury can be almost inspirational."
Parisien is the daughter of an Australian-born mother, Jill, a former physical therapist, and a Canadian-born father, Victor, an orthopedic surgeon. Besides Julie, the Parisien offspring include two older brothers, J.T., 24, who skied at Williams College, and Robbie, 22, who joined the pro ski tour after finishing 20th in the GS at Albertville, and a younger sister, Anna, 20, who is on the U.S. B ski team. Chez Parisien—which includes a mongrel named Bodie, who is part huskie, part chow, part Labrador retriever—is in the countryside outside Auburn, Maine. It's a lovely hilltop house filled with books ranging from Steinbeck to Salman Rushdie, tapes from Mozart to Squeeze, and a variety of musical instruments, including a medieval contralute built by Robbie, who is an even better classical guitarist than he is a ski racer. It is an intelligent, cosmopolitan household, and, Julie says, "I probably learned more at our dinner table than I did at school."
As tots the Parisien children were sent to Lost Valley, a small ski area three miles from their home. "The chairlift was like our baby-sitter," says Julie. Ironically, at first, skiing was not her idea of a good time. "I started skiing when I was two, and I hated it," she says. "What I loved was the lodge, video games and hot chocolate. Then when I was seven, we started racing, and that was when I finally got interested. Even at that age I needed competition. I adored it. It forced me to learn about myself, to improve myself. I didn't like Softball, kick ball or basketball. I didn't like team games in general. I was a terrible team player because I wanted everyone to do things my way, and if they didn't, I did things my way anyway. Of course, that didn't work at all."
As teenagers Parisien and her siblings attended Burke Mountain Academy, a boarding school in Vermont that emphasizes ski-racing instruction, but their commitment to ski racing was not due to pressure from their parents. "They never forced us to compete," says Julie. "They were not freaky Little League parents, screaming madly at every race. They supported us, but they didn't push us. We made our own choices."
By her own choice Parisien has committed the next eight years of her life to racing. That will mean continuing to make sacrifices for her sport. One has been missing out on time with her family. "We left home at such an early age [to go to Burke], and now we depend on telephones to be together," she says. "We spend hours on the phone, and I use my family as a sounding board for my anxieties because they are the only people in the world who really want to hear them."
Her career has also limited her circle of close friends. She says quite bluntly, "The ski team is my only constant contact with people, and even though there are great individuals on the team, they are not necessarily the people you would choose as your closest friends.
"But the biggest thing missing from my life right now is a boyfriend. It wouldn't be fair to any man for me to be gone all those months and then to only see him for a few weeks in the summer. It's tough, but it is all part of my dedication to doing my very best. I figure that these years are my only chance to be totally selfish."
Her favorite male friend on the World Cup circuit is the outspoken 25-year-old Swiss skier Paul Accola, winner of the overall World Cup for men last year and something of an iconoclast on the but-toned-up Swiss team. "I connected with Paul," says Parisien, "because he is a wanderer from the norm, unpredictable, a down-to-earth guy with a lot of innate confidence. But there is never enough time for us to really hang out together."
There will be even less free time if Parisien succeeds at her next goal, becoming a full-fledged four-event skier. For now, the more technical slalom and giant slalom arc her better events, but she has scored as high as sixth in a World Cup Super G, and she is determined to compete at that level in the downhill, too. Her guiding light in all this is the nonpareil all-around Austrian skier, Petra Kronberger, 23, who got two gold medals at last winter's Olympics—in the slalom that Parisien lost and in the combined event—and then went on to win her third straight overall World Cup title. "I admire Petra so much," says Parisien, "but 1 want to give her a run for her money. I am ahead of her in technical events, but she is too good at the Super G and the downhill for me now."
Parisien is candid about her shortcoming in the high-speed events. "I'm scared when I race a downhill or a Super G," she says, "but that's not all bad. You have to show respect for the hill, respect for the danger in these races. The difference between me and Petra isn't physical talent. It's 100 percent psychological. I know I'll never be completely fearless, but I will definitely have the confidence as I get more experience. I think the secret of the downhill is not what most people assume. It is not throwing yourself down the hill, skiing on guts alone. The downhill requires patience. In fact, I see the downhill as a thinker's race in which you plan and wait, and then wait some more, and then, only then, do you make your turn just right, smoothly, with finesse."
The big question is, Will all of Parisien's thinking, planning, waiting and sacrificing eventually lead her to the summit of World Cup racing? She is immensely talented, intelligent, resilient and brave. After her performance in Park City, she is clearly on her way to stardom.
There are three more U.S. skier-friendly weekends of World Cup racing scheduled in December, in Steamboat Springs and Vail in Colorado and in Lake Louise in Alberta. The North American hills should be an advantage to the U.S. women in general and to Parisien specifically. In the afterglow of her victory, Julie set the course for the future: "I'm on a roll now. We go from here."