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Zone of Their Own

Feb. 28, 1994
Feb. 28, 1994

Table of Contents
Feb. 28, 1994

The Winter Olympics
Auto Racing
Boxing
Baseball
SI 40th Anniversary
John Chaney
Point After

Zone of Their Own

U.S. skiers, led by Diann Roffe-Steinrotter and unsung Tommy Moe, exceeded expectations by amassing five medals in the first 10 days of the Games

By William Oscar Johnson

"I am in a zone right now where I almost can't stop myself from skiing fast."

This is an article from the Feb. 28, 1994 issue

Call it the Moe Zone. This remark was made last Thursday by Thomas Sven Moe, 24, the unsung Alaskan and winless World Cup ski racer turned Olympic hero, immediately after he had earned a silver medal in the men's Super G in Lillehammer and four days after he had stunned the skiing world by winning the gold in the downhill.

But be aware that the zone also worked miracles on a host of other U.S. skiers. Never before has there been such a rapid rush of medals by U.S. Olympic skiers. Over the first 10 days in Lillehammer, U.S. Alpine and freestyle skiers won five medals in seven events—and there were still seven events to go in the last week of the Games.

Besides Moe's gold and silver, the U.S. harvest included a gold in the women's Super G by Diann Roffe-Steinrotter of Potsdam, N.Y., a silver in the women's downhill by Picabo Street of Sun Valley, Idaho, and a silver in the freestyle moguls by Liz McIntyre of Winter Park, Colo., who stepped in to save the Americans' bacon after the heavy favorite, 1992 Olympic gold medalist Donna Weinbrecht of West Milford, N.J., fell to seventh place because, as her coach, Jeff Good, said, "she did not feel she was in her zone."

Later, Good explained the meaning of the term. "The zone is a state of mind," he said, "where your brain doesn't think of all the other things that your brain can think of. It's having tunnel vision. No distractions."

The heretofore unlucky Roffe-Steinrotter entered the Moe Zone on Feb. 15 for her run in the Super G—a race in which she had never placed better than fourth in World Cup competition. Her 11-year career on the U.S. team had been a strange, flawed thing. In 1985, as an ingenue of 17, she had won a gold medal in the giant slalom in the World Championships in Bormio, Italy, to become the second-youngest skier—by four days—ever to win a world or Olympic title.

Between the golds in Bormio and Lillehammer lay another universe. "I can't connect the two events at all," she says. "There is too much history in between. All my values have changed. Now I know the consequence of injuries, of winning, of losing, of experience. I know all about the big Catch-22 of ski racing—that hurting myself can have terrible consequences, but that if I don't risk hurting myself, I won't have any chance of winning. I didn't know any of that then. I was like a gymnast who's 10 years old and then her body changes. I was 5'2", 105 pounds. Now I'm 5'4", 134.1 bear no resemblance physically, mentally or emotionally to that person."

Roffe-Steinrotter had won one World Cup race in 1985, after Bormio, but had not reached the World Cup victory stand since. That long dry spell was largely the result of season-killing knee injuries she suffered in '86 and '91. Then, in '92, with a gritty performance in the giant slalom at the Albertville Olympics, she came out of ninth place after the first run to get the silver. That medal might have offered a graceful path to retirement. In '91 she had married Willi Steinrotter, who coaches soccer and ski racing at Clarkson University in Potsdam and had known Diann since they were both children. His father ran the Brantling Ski Slopes near Rochester, N.Y., where Diann had begun skiing at two. But she would not quit.

"I didn't want to cop out on my own potential," she says. Yet her post-Albertville results were mediocre, and this season Steinrotter took a leave of absence to travel with her. Having a spouse or sweetheart accompany ski racers during a grueling World Cup season is frowned on by most coaches, but Paul Major, the U.S. Alpine director and women's coach, had no qualms about Diann and Willi's plans. "When she told me, I have to have Willi with me,' I said yes on the spot," says Major. "I'm not in the business of destroying marriages just to protect our team status. Besides, Willi worked harder for us than anyone, the first on the hill in the morning, the last off at night. He was like an extra assistant coach, a very positive force for the team."

And for Diann in particular. "I tried to keep her from losing faith after she had a bad race," says Willi, "and there were a good lot of them."

Indeed, before the Games, Roffe-Steinrotter's best finish this season had been 13th in a giant slalom, and it seemed she had little hope for success in Lillehammer. When she drew the No. 1 position for the Super G, it was a disastrous omen: She had had the same number for the same event in Albertville. There she had crashed soon after the start. She was also thinking a great deal about the popular Austrian racer Ulrike Maier, who had broken her neck and died during a downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in January. "The morning before the race," Roffe-Steinrotter says, "I thought, If Ulli were up there looking down, she'd tell us to just point 'em down the hill and go! Ulli was a fighter, and she'd want us to be fighters, too."

At the start Roffe-Steinrotter didn't feel much like fighting. "I had a terrific knot in my stomach, almost sick enough to throw up," she says, "but as soon as I started, my instincts kicked in, and I got the run I wanted." She had to wait over an hour to be sure that her time of 1:22.15 would stand up—and her victory wasn't certain until racer No. 35, Svetlana Gladisheva of Russia, flashed down to finish second, just ahead of the Italian rookie, Isolde Kostner.

That night, seated next to Willi in a car on the way to the medal ceremonies, Roffe-Steinrotter said that she had been planning to retire at the end of this season and was "85 percent sure" she still would. And do what? "Maybe a baby," Willi said.

She punched his arm affectionately. "Oh, no; first I'll finish college and then maybe a baby," she replied. Then, displaying the incandescent smile that might soon bring her big money in endorsements, she said, "You know, I have no regrets at all about my life to this point." She had moved out of the Moe Zone into her own Golden Glow Zone.

Two days later, into the zone stepped Street, the blithest spirit of them all competing in the hardest race of them all, the downhill. Her father, Stubby, her mother, Dee, and her brother Baba had journeyed from tiny Triumph (pop. 50), near Sun Valley, to cheer her on and to talk about the itinerant, quasihippie life the family had led when the kids were small. "Our folks took us everywhere," said Baba. "Guatemala, Yucatan—Picabo and I have ridden every train but one in Central America. But we weren't full-on hippies, because Dad had a job lots of the time."

In Lillehammer, Stubby, a stonemason by trade, wore a ponytail and a beret and was draped in an American flag. He said of Dee's and his child-rearing philosophy, "We let them hit the wall, taste life, take their licks, fall on their butts. Then we'd pick them up and let them see what they learned from it all." Dee added, "Happy is all we hoped they'd be, and we pulled it off. They're happy."

Usually but not always. Picabo went through an unhappy time in 1990 when she was banished from a ski team training camp for being overweight and under-motivated—an episode she describes in typical Streetspeak: "They thought I was a dirt bag, and I had to prove to them I wasn't." She ultimately proved that by winning a silver medal in the combined at the 1993 World Championships in Morioka, Japan, a showing that changed her life significantly. "Hey, I got myself a New York agent who also reps Charles Barkley," she says, "and I made enough money to buy myself some toys—a one-ton Ford truck, a mountain bike, five-wheel Rollerblades with low boots, a fishing rod. Oh, it was a blast having money."

Her Olympic medal should earn her many more toys, although, to hear her tell it, her race for the silver was not exactly a money run. "To be honest, I skied like a dirt bag," she said. In fact everyone's race appeared to be of the dirt-bag variety compared to the thing of beauty spun by the gold medalist, Germany's elegant World Cup downhill champion, Katja Seizinger. Known as Die Millionärs-tochter (the Millionaire's Daughter) because her father is a wealthy steel executive, Seizinger, 21, is expected to rule women's ski racing through the 1990s. This, however, was her first gold in an Olympics, and after Seizinger made her run, which gave her a huge victory margin of .66 of a second, Street kissed her cheek and said, "Now you're the queen."

Meanwhile, Moe the downhill king remained in his zone for the Super G. He was denied a second gold only by the eye blink of time he lost on a turn near the bottom of the course. Markus Wasmeier, a German who, like Roffe-Steinrotter, had won a gold medal in the giant slalom in Bormio in 1985, squeaked past Moe by .08 of a second.

At the finish the crowd serenaded Moe with a chorus of Happy Birthday for the sudden celebrity's 24th. The only event remaining for Moe in these Olympics is the slalom half of the combined this Friday, and he could win a medal after his third-place finish in the combined downhill last week. (Another American, Kyle Rasmussen, also found himself in the zone with a second-place run in the combined downhill.)

As the week ended Moe had time to bask in his achievements, signing autographs, chatting with worshipful children, leisurely chewing the fat with reporters. How had he celebrated the night of his birthday? "We went to a bar and wore Viking clothes, with horns and all, and we drank beer out of wooden cups," he said.

What about this zone thing—can it electrify an entire team?

"Heek, yes. It's some kind of vibrations, and if one guy skis fast, sometimes we all do. I know it works, even if I don't understand it."

How does he compare himself to Bill Johnson, the cocky downhiller who won in the 1984 Olympics at Sarajevo?

"I don't. I watched him win the gold on TV when I was 14.1 knew then I wanted to do the same thing. But Billy is Billy. His achievements are what I want to copy, not his personality."

Fame seems to fit Moe comfortably. However, it was not long before the inevitable probing into his private world began. The day after his Super G silver, the Bozeman (Mont.) Daily Chronicle ran a story, which the Associated Press spread worldwide, with the headline MOE'S FORMER STEPMOTHER LIVES IN HER CAR. According to the article, Sonja Smith, the second wife of Tom Moe Sr. (who is now married for a third time), is homeless and broke in Montana and had once sold her dining table and chairs to send her stepson Tommy to a ski camp in Oregon. Even the Moe Zone couldn't shield the new hero from such unwelcome revelations.

In fact, the zone was hardly bulletproof. U.S. men came up empty at the mogul competition last week, and in the women's combined on Monday a 10th place by Street was the best the Americans could do. The winner of the event was the Swedish wonder, Pernilla Wiberg, who powered past Switzerland's venerable Vreni Schneider, winner of two Olympic gold medals in 1988, to take the gold by .13 of a second. With that victory Wiberg became the favorite to win this week's giant slalom and slalom.

The Moe Zone aside, the two big questions arising from the surprising success of the Americans are, Why? and, Is it a fluke? Some people, among them Ken Read, a former Canadian downhiller, believe that the cold temperatures in Norway benefited U.S. skiers by causing ski and wax problems mainly for the Swiss and the Austrians, who have collected just one medal between them after five Alpine events. "They have stuck to tried and true formulas," says Read, "while the Americans, the Norwegians and the Canadians have been more willing to experiment. This has paid off."

Richard Hegglin, a writer for the Swiss news agency Sportinformationsdienst, says, "The pressure on the favorites from big European skiing nations is enormous at the Olympics, and not as much pressure exists for the Americans."

Says Major, "We designed a program, beginning last May, that aimed to have the athletes peak during these two weeks. It included everything from no-hassle living and travel accommodations in Lillehammer to sending some of the kids to the Canary Islands before the Games. All of this has worked—too well, in fact. Our success has become a double-edged sword because now the expectations have switched around so that if an American doesn't win a medal, he or she fails."

Still, that seems infinitely better than trying to whip up excitement over yet another 11th-place finish. And, in fact, the real truth of why American skiers are on such an Olympic high could lie in the words of Julie Parisien, the U.S.'s silver medal slalomist in last year's World Championships. "Hey! Americans love the Olympics," she says. "It's the only time people at home watch us."

That, too, should change, for Moe is no fluke and neither is Street. They are ready to lead U.S. skiing into still another zone. Call it the Highlight Zone.

ILLUSTRATIONPHOTOCARL YARBROUGHAt 10, Roffe-Steinrotter was already displaying the form that got her gold last week.PHOTOBILL FREHS[See caption above.]PHOTOCARL YARBROUGHMoe was aglow after winning his second medal, and McIntyre kept the high going with a silver.PHOTOTOM LYNN/CBS[See caption above.]TWO PHOTOSCARL YARBROUGHThe road that Street followed to her silver medal performance was decidedly unconventional.