On the one hand it will be remembered as the Jigoku no yona Arupen Sekai Senshuken Taikai—the Alpine World Ski Championships from Hell—a 12-day Japanese nightmare in which most of the world's best racers wound up imprisoned at Shizukuishi, a ski resort near the city of Morioka, 320 miles north of Tokyo, where they endured a paralyzing procession of postponements caused by the wildest winter weather most of them had ever experienced. From Siberia and over the Sea of Japan came gale-force winds, blinding blizzards, torrential rain, heavy fog and temperatures warm enough to melt snow and cold enough to freeze snow as hard as steel. This says nothing of the powerful earthquake (6.6 on the Richter scale) that shook skiers in their beds on Feb. 7 and triggered tidal-wave warnings along Japan's northwest coast. Truly hellish.
On the other hand, when the racers did get their chances to ski during breaks in the weather, these championships became decidedly sunnier. Indeed, the world's Alpine heroes produced memories so stirring that Siberia's most violent climatic concoctions could not spoil them. Foremost among the nonmeteorological developments was the triple-medal triumph of 21-year-old Kjetil Andre Aamodt. He was part of a formidable Norwegian men's team that accounted for three gold medals and two silvers. Then there were the downhill victories by a pair of 23-year-old no-names, previously winless in World Cup races: Kate Pace, a Canadian who won despite a fractured left wrist, and Urs Lehmann of Switzerland, who had entered the Japanese championships at Shizukuishi in 1990 to gain experience on the course that would be used for these worlds. Finally, strong performances were also turned in by three U.S. skiers: Julie Parisien, 21, who took the silver in the women's slalom; Picabo Street, also 21, who was second in the women's combined; and AJ Kitt, 24, who was third in the men's downhill.
The U.S. women's team has suffered myriad injuries in recent seasons, and Parisien, with a broken left wrist, broken teeth and a troublesome knee, has been particularly unlucky. Yet the adversity she overcame to make her way onto the awards podium last week was more profound than any physical injury. Her brother Jean-Paul, 24, was killed shortly before Christmas by a hit-and-run driver who caused J-P's car to crash into a tree in rural Maine, near where the Parisiens live. J-P had served as the leader and inspiration for his three younger siblings, and the loss had a shattering effect on the family.
"Maybe I'm just shutting out the sentimental stuff and postponing my grief until spring," said Julie. "But I feel he is still with us. I feel his presence. He was with me during the race."
If so, J-P helped his sister produce an excellent first run in the slalom on Feb. 9; at the break she stood second, behind New Zealand's Annelise Coberger. In the second run Parisien uncorked another beauty, but about halfway through, a gate pole whipped down across her skis and broke her rhythm. "I sat back and got real defensive for a second," recalled Parisien. "Then I got my concentration back. But that little flaw cost me the gold medal, I'm positive." Coberger missed a gate in her second run, but Karin Buder, 28, a longtime World Cup also-ran from Austria, blasted out of the pack to beat Parisien by .21 of a second.
After the race, Parisien wept. "J-P would be psyched at how strong I am," she said, "but he would have told me that it was a real downer that I didn't get the gold. I feel I let him down. I know that sounds harsh and I know it sounds sad, but it isn't. My brother had great, great compassion, but he also believed in pressuring us to do our very best."
In her short career Parisien has three World Cup victories and a fourth-place finish in the 1992 Olympic slalom, so her performance last week wasn't all that surprising. As for Street, a free spirit from Sun Valley, Idaho, her silver came right out of the blue. Street, whose first name, Picabo, is pronounced "PEEK-a-boo," had never finished better than eighth in a World Cup event, and no one expected her to leave Japan with any hardware.
No one, that is, except Street. Never a star, she has nevertheless acted like one at times. "When someone tells me there is only one way to do things, it always lights a fire under my butt," she said. "My instant reaction is, 'I'm gonna prove you wrong.' " This attitude got her sent home from the U.S. team's training camp in the summer of 1990 because she refused to do the dry-land conditioning the coaches demanded.
According to Street's father, Stubby, a mason by trade and a gentle hippie by nature, Picabo, who is named after a town near Sun Valley, "was one of those naturally talented kids who was surprised to find out that she had to work. Every once in a while you had to boot her in the rear, and then you had to stroke her. There were times when you wanted to yell, 'Damn it! You could be the best in the world.' " Picabo was certifiably second best after the Shizukuishi combined, which consists of a downhill race (in which she finished first) and a slalom (13th). The winner was Miriam Vogt, 25, a German who came in second in both races.
Kitt has been prowling around the edges of stardom since December 1991, when in Val d'Isère, France, he became the first U.S. skier to win a World Cup downhill since Olympic gold medalist Billy Johnson in 1984. Kitt has not won another, but he has piled up enough top-10 performances to qualify as a threat on every downhill course, from the toughest to the easiest. The one at Shizukuishi, the shortest men's run in the world championships' 62-year history, was among the latter. Said Kitt after getting the bronze, "It's a fun course, though maybe not a real championship test."
Other racers were more brutal. Marc Girardelli, 29, the Luxembourg legend who competed in his first world championships in 1985, said the Shizukuishi downhill course was for "development racers and restaurant workers." He refused to enter the race.
There was room for mistakes on this course, and Kitt's run was not flawless. From the 11th start position, he started slowly but set the fastest and second-fastest times on the lower portions of the course en route to his medal. Lehmann, wearing a pair of lucky yellow socks he won't compete without, came from the 20th position to save Switzerland's ski-racing face by winning the gold. No other Swiss, male or female, got a medal.
Finishing second in the men's downhill was Atle Skaardal, 27, one of the horde of Norsemen who laid waste the slopes of Shizukuishi and sent a clear warning that they are ready to do similar damage to their own hills during next year's Olympics in Lillehammer. Indeed, the Norwegian men's team could easily win all five Olympic Alpine gold medals. One man alone could win four of them. The precocious Aamodt is closing in on the title of Greatest Skier on Earth, and his performance at Shizukuishi was astounding. He got gold in the slalom, gold in the giant slalom and silver in the combined. He did not enter the downhill, and the Super G, an event he won at Albertville, was canceled on Sunday because of the blasts from Siberia.
Aamodt possesses the agility of an acrobat, and he has a delicate touch on his skis; he needs no yellow socks to win. When someone asked him if luck played an important part in his success, he said with a wry smile, "No, our competition is made up of very small margins, and it is not luck or unluck that decides who wins. If you succeed in a race while wearing a certain pair of undertrousers one day, and then you wear the same undertrousers day after day, you may still succeed, but it will not be because of the undertrousers."
Aamodt was not unhappy with his silver in the combined, because his teammate and pal, Lasse Kjus, 22, won the gold. The two have seemed as inseparable as twins since they stunned the ski world three years ago by claiming 10 of the 15 medals at the 1990 junior world championships in Zinal, Switzerland. They are known as the Dream Team among their mates because of their drifty, absent-minded behavior. Aamodt agrees they deserve the moniker. "Sometimes we forget to put on boots when it is raining," he said. "We forget hotel keys sometimes. We used to put our luggage and skis next to the car and drive off. But we have improved. Now we put the skis on the car and drive off. We never forget our heads or our skis anymore."
No one was more driven to succeed in Japan than Pace. She has negotiated a minefield of injuries: In 1989 she underwent reconstructive surgery on her right knee, and in December 1991 she broke her right ankle. As a result she missed the better part of two seasons and the Albertville Games. In all the downtime, Pace became extraordinarily focused on the Shizukuishi downhill. When she trained on her bicycle last summer near her home in North Bay, Ont., she kept a strip of tape on her handlebars with the slogan: GOLD IN MORIOKA!
Pace was in unusually good shape this season, but at a race in Haus, Austria, on Jan. 22 she fell and broke her wrist. "Gold in Morioka!" suddenly seemed an impossible goal, but Pace didn't give up. She got a doctor in Munich to design a special cast for her that left her hand free to hold a ski pole. The wrist hurt terribly whenever the pole touched the snow, so she had the pole cut short. Two weeks ago she began practicing the all-important lunge out of the start gate using only one arm to push herself.
It worked. Starting 17th, Pace attacked the course as if she were a healthy two-armed skier, and when she crossed the line, she had written a new chapter in Canada's illustrious history of downhill racing. Another major character in that tale was in the finish area, watching with tears in her eyes as Pace charged home. Kerrin Lee-Gartner, who overcame a similar plague of injuries to win the '92 Olympic downhill and finished ninth on this day, said to Pace, "Thank you. It brings back all the memories."
Such moments of drama were sorely needed in Japan, for the onslaught from Siberia seemed interminable. But one by one—and often two by two, with all the doubling up of races—the championships moved toward completion. In the end no race was held on its scheduled day, but all were run except the men's Super G. And several established World Cup stars burnished their reputations. Katja Seizinger of Germany won the Super G, and Carole Merle of France won the women's giant slalom. Girardelli took home his ninth (bronze in the combined) and 10th (silver in the slalom) world-championship medals.
One star, however, didn't shine. Italy's Alberto Tomba, 26, was bedridden with the flu until midway through the second week, when he appeared weak-voiced and hollow-eyed to preside over a packed press conference. He spoke fatalistically: "It was something or someone far stronger than I that has made this sickness happen." He then declared that something or someone notwithstanding, he planned to enter the slalom, even though he doubted he could perform at more than 80% of his capacity. As it turned out, he straddled a gate about halfway down the first run, which meant he had delivered no more than 25% of the capacity required to win the race. Tomba has three Olympic gold medals and 29 World Cup victories, but he has only a single bronze medal in four world championships—and he got that back in 1987.
Following his failed run, Tomba wondered if perhaps he might be "haunted" when it comes to the worlds. Surely Tomba, if not all the racers, will long remember the competition at Shizukuishi as the dread Jigoku no yona Arupen Sekai Senshuken Taikai.