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The Son Finally Rises

Feb. 21, 1994
Feb. 21, 1994

Table of Contents
Feb. 21, 1994

Bicycling
College Basketball
The Winter Olympics
SI 40th Anniversary
Baseball
Pro Basketball
Hockey
Focus
Outdoors
Boxing
Point After

The Son Finally Rises

At peace with his father and with himself, Tommy Moe won a gold in the downhill

By William Oscar Johnson

As Tommy Moe of Girdwood, Alaska, flashed across the finish line at the men's downhill on Sunday, a microscopic .04 of a second faster than the favorite, Kjetil Andrè Aamodt of Norway, America's ski racing fans burst out in a chorus of hallelujahs. Not only had the 23-year-old Moe redeemed his career after years of unfulfilled promise, but he had also brought gold and glory to a tattered U.S. ski team that had recently come under some tough criticism.

This is an article from the Feb. 21, 1994 issue Original Layout

This was a triumph that seemed to make everyone happy, including even the Norwegian hosts, who were pleased by the fact that Moe's great-great-grandfather came from Norway, where his surname M‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áen is very common. Opponents, too, found some solace in Moe's victory. Said U.S. teammate Kyle Rasmussen, "There isn't anyone on the World Cup circuit who resents Tommy winning this race. Everyone likes him." With his elfin smile and his undisguised elation over his victory, Moe captured the hearts of the 30,000-plus spectators who gathered in 5° sunshine at the downhill course in Kvitfjell, 35 miles north of Lillehammer—among them Norway's King Harald V and Queen Sonja, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The First Lady arrived after Moe had completed his run, but she greeted him with congratulations and later mentioned that she had once spent a pleasant college summer working in a cannery in Alaska.

Moe's first win in a big-time ski race was the sublime climax to a saga of love and war between a young man and his father. Tom Sr., 55, a gregarious, craggy-faced builder, was close by young Tommy's side in his first hours of global celebrity in Lillehammer. Accompanied by his third wife, Tyra, 36, an elementary school teacher and the mother of Hudson Thatcher Moe, aged seven months, Tom Sr. had fought his way from Alaska to Norway through a succession of winter storms and closed airports, arriving at the downhill finish area only two minutes before the competition began.

Born and raised in the copper-mining town of Anaconda, Mont., the elder Moe is an inveterate outdoorsman (at one point in his life he was a smoke jumper fighting forest fires) and a powerful skier who worked for a time as a ski patrolman at Big Mountain, a Montana resort. He was also a kayaker of such skill that a particularly dangerous stretch of water in Montana's Swan River was named the Moe Hole after he became the first to negotiate it. Tom Sr. had two boys and a girl with his first wife, but the couple divorced when Tommy, the youngest, was two. The daughter, Tera, went to live with the first Mrs. Moe, and the sons were taken in by their paternal grandmother, Valerie Tomlinson.

Tom Sr. eventually moved to Alaska, where more construction work was available. But before he left Montana, he introduced his youngest child to skiing. Says Tommy, "I first remember snowplowing with him at Big Mountain when I was maybe three, but I probably had been doing it even before then." The boy took quickly to the sport, and by the time he was 13 he held so much promise as a ski racer that Dynastar skis signed him to an endorsement contract.

Tommy reasoned that if he was old enough to have a ski contract at 13, he was also old enough for adult indulgences—such as smoking marijuana and drinking. "I had some tough years as an adolescent," Tommy recalls, "and I got involved in a lot of things. It was just one of those things—an experiment, the wrong crowd. I wasn't always the smartest kid around." In 1984 Tommy was caught smoking pot at a ski race in Helena, and he was banned from competing in the Idaho-Montana region. "When he was kicked out of racing, we called Dynastar first," says Tom Sr. (The company stuck by the young skier and continues to sponsor him.) "They suggested I contact coaches in Alaska. I did. If Tommy hadn't ended up in Alaska, he wouldn't be where he is today. The coaching was a little tougher there, because everything is tougher up there."

Indeed, that toughness has produced four Alaska-based skiers, in addition to Moe, who are currently on the U.S. Olympic team, including downhiller Hilary Lindh, 24, of Juneau, who won the silver at the 1992 Olympics, and another downhiller, Megan Gerety, 22, of Anchorage, who is Tommy's girlfriend.

Tommy moved in with his father and began doing well on the Alaskan ski circuit. When he was 15, he was invited to the U.S. National Alpine Championships at Copper Mountain, Colo. Starting 69th, he slammed down a rutted, chewed-up downhill course and finished sixth. At the time, the U.S. men's ski team was so bereft of talent that the kid his dad still called Little Tommy was immediately dubbed the looming superstar in American ski racing. It was a heavy load for a teenager to carry, and he did not bear it well. Training at a U.S. team camp at Mount Alyeska, outside Anchorage, in the summer of '86, he sneaked into the woods to smoke some pot, and the episode was reported to a coach. He was kicked out of the camp.

Tom Sr. was working a job in Dutch Harbor, a bleak outpost on the Bering Sea in the Aleutian Islands, and he decided to teach Tommy a lesson. He ordered his son to join him there for work. The young skier was on the job at 4 a.m. and labored under the Alaskan sun for 12 to 16 hours at a stretch during the long days of Arctic summer. "I worked his rear end off," says Tom Sr. "And then I asked him if he'd rather be doing this or if he'd rather be skiing with the team in Argentina. That straightened him out."

Young Tommy recalls, "It was mental torture, bad news. It humbled me up pretty fast."

He quickly got serious about ski racing. In the 1987 world junior championships, held in Norway, 17-year-old Tommy took a silver in the downhill. In 1988 he came in fourth in the world junior downhill, but his reputation as skiing's new golden boy was growing. In '89 the world junior championships were held on Mount Alyeska. The locals were so proud of their home-state hero that they nearly suffocated Tommy with pressure. Full-page ads were purchased by the race sponsors in local papers exhorting fans to COME SEE TOMMY MOE TAKE ON THE WORLD! Tommy finished fifth in the downhill—a good result under normal conditions, but a failure for a golden boy caught in the spotlight. Yet he rallied, streaking to first place in the Super G and winning another gold in the combined events.

Moe moved up the following year to ski racing's major league, the World Cup circuit, and his life quickly became a dreary series of also-ran races, where he rarely finished even in the top 10. Through it all Tom Sr. rode him hard. After an ugly performance at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, where Tommy finished 20th, 28th and 18th, respectively, in the downhill, Super G and combined, Tom Sr. recalls, "I looked at him in the finish area, and he had tears in his eyes. And then he skied away from me, as if he had let me down. I had been pushing him so hard that instead of his being mad and let down when he finished badly, I was the one being mad and let down. My wife told me, 'You should stop pushing him. You should be happy you have a son who is even at the Olympics. Most people never have that.' That kind of shocked me."

After '92, says Tommy, "I hit rock bottom. I was supposed to be the next superstar, but I was almost a total burnout."

He decided to take charge of his career, dumping the ski team's plan that he train exclusively for speed events, the downhill and Super G, and ignore all work in the technical events, the giant slalom and slalom. His father approved of the new strategy, but things did not go smoothly at first, and midway in the 1992-93 season Tommy pulled out and went home for 10 days. "I needed my dad," he says.

Father and son went back-country skiing in deep, deep powder at Hatcher Pass and camped for a night in a winter cabin so cold, as Tommy recalls, that his toes froze and the nails turned black. An old Anchorage friend, Jack Vanberg, thinks the visit home was just what Moe needed. "Tommy just relaxed," he says. "He jumped on a snowboard for the first time. He just did stuff with his dad."

Until that hiatus Moe's best World Cup finish during the '93 season had been 12th. Returning to the tour, he went to Japan in February for the FIS World Championships downhill and skied to an encouraging fifth place, only .11 of a second out of the medals. In March at Whistler Mountain near Vancouver, Moe copped a second-place finish, his best in World Cup competition. In the early going this season he racked up a third in the downhill, a third in the Super G and five other top-10 finishes. He was still without a victory, but his confidence was restored, and as the Lillehammer Games approached, he felt ready to fulfill his promise.

Last Saturday, Moe marched in the opening ceremonies with Gerety and then dined with her in the Olympic Village. "She helps me to prepare mentally," says Moe. "She said, 'Just go for it. Ski the best you can.' And that is what I did. I kept it simple, focused on skiing, not on winning, not on where I'd place. I remembered to breathe—sometimes I don't."

On Sunday, the day of the downhill, Kvitfjell was bright, but the course was frozen so hard that in some places the snow was grippy on the ski bottoms. Aamodt would be seventh in line down the mountain, followed by Moe. Though only 22, Aamodt is already a proven World Cup star with a gold in the Super G and a bronze in the giant slalom from Albertville, and three victories this season. As the host country's hope for gold in Alpine skiing, he was under considerable pressure. After his run Aamodt led the field by .3 of a second. "I had a great feeling with all the 30,000 people screaming," he said later. "I didn't know if my time would hold up. There were still a lot of good guys up there. The answer came very quickly—after about two minutes."

That was roughly how long it took Moe to fly from top to bottom in a beautifully controlled run on which he held tucks and thrust his hands forward in perfect form at places where others had stood up and flailed their arms. "I didn't know how fast I was going," he said later, "but it felt slow because the snow was so cold. When I looked up and saw Number 1, I was really surprised because I'm used to seeing Number 2 or 3. Or 14."

No more. Moe will be the reigning Olympic downhill gold medalist for the next four years. The bronze was taken by Ed Podivinsky, 23, an easygoing Canadian. AJ Kitt, who had ruled U.S. downhill skiing for the past three years, finished a sad 17th. But Moe's gold was more than enough to lift the spirits of American ski racers and their coaches.

The victory was especially sweet because it served to rebut at least two recent critical appraisals of the state of the U.S. ski team. SI's Olympic Preview (Feb. 7) had pronounced U.S. racers to be a "woeful" bunch who skied like "lead-footed snowplows." In the Jan. 21 issue of Ski Racing, publisher Gary Black Jr. referred to the plight of the team as "pathetic," and wrote, "The failure of the team to be at all competitive is an embarrassment."

"We work very hard. We don't deserve to be ridiculed," Moe said, when asked at a press conference about the unflattering predictions for the team. As if to further confound the media, in the downhill half of the combined competition on the day after Moe's gold, U.S. teammate Rasmussen finished second and Moe third. The slalom half of the combined event will be held on Feb. 25, and both Americans are in strong contention for the gold. And it's worth noting that the Super G was scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 17—which just happens to be Little Tommy's 24th birthday.

PHOTOTOM LYNN/CBSTaking to the air, Moe did not disappoint his fans, who had come to Lillehammer to show the colors.PHOTOBILL FRAKES[See caption above.]PHOTOBILL FRAKESMore than 30,000 thronged the Alpine venue, in temperatures that sank to single digits.PHOTOHANS BREZARDMoe, long burdened by high expectations, was nearly flawless during his icy run at Kvitfjell.PHOTONATHAN BILOW/ALLSPORTTom Sr. and Tyra arrived at the slopes in the nick of time to watch Tommy, then help him celebrate.PHOTOJEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU/AFPThe First Lady was on hand to enjoy Moe's moment—and the boost he gave to U.S. skiing.PHOTOJOHN BIEVERAamodt (below), the favorite, had to settle for silver behind Moe, while Podivinsky took the bronze.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER/CBS[See caption above.]TWO ILLUSTRATIONS