Hilary Lindh has been reviewing trigonometry, getting ready for
her next semester of math at the University of Utah, something
she should be getting around to, oh, any year now. She has
already pulled an A in calculus, but that was nearly a decade
ago at Oregon, and her grasp of logarithms now is locked away in
that recess of the mind where most book learning dwells. Lindh
is 27, and she knows she will get around to finishing college,
just as she will get to all the hiking, camping and free skiing
on her to-do list. But last year, when she had to choose between
trig calculations or hurtling down rock-candy slopes at 75 mph,
Lindh strapped on her skis and took the easy way out.
For now she is sticking to the simple arithmetic of a downhill
racer, scanning scoreboards at the bottoms of mountains for
almost imperceptible differences. She lives by eyeblinks. Five
years to the day after finishing .06 of a second from an Olympic
gold medal in the Albertville Games, where she won the silver,
Lindh was exactly that much faster than runner-up Heidi
Zurbriggen of Switzerland at the world-championship downhill
last Saturday in Sestriere, Italy. "You can hardly conceive of
anything that takes that long--six one-hundredths," Lindh said.
"You think about how such a little time can make such a big
difference in your life."
The second consecutive world-championship downhill victory by an
American--Picabo Street won in 1996 at Sierra Nevada,
Spain--vindicated Lindh's decision to remain the eternal
sophomore and burnished the U.S. team's reputation for rising to
the occasion at big events, a reputation that had been under
assault at the worlds. After arriving in Sestriere, Lindh spent
a week watching American skiers who could have been timed with
sundials. "I know we can ski better than that," she said. "Every
single person can ski better than they did."
Before Saturday, this included Lindh. She had begun the season
by placing 32nd in Lake Louise, Alberta, on a course where she
had won one of her three World Cup downhills. She was miserable
about her dismal showing. Also, the chronically bulging disks in
her back were causing terrible pain; her coach, Ernst Hager, had
resigned; her longtime ski technician, Mike Desantis, had taken
another job, leaving her to travel with an unfamiliar
ski-company rep who would help with the waxing and sharpening of
her skis. She had switched from her old boots to the model that
German ace Katja Seizinger was wearing. For a woman whose career
had been marked by constancy, Lindh was a wreck. The following
week, in Vail, she returned to her old boots, but the best she
could do was 23rd place.
"I thought last year, after winning a [bronze] medal at the
worlds, that I could quit and feel good about it, but it didn't
work out that way," says Lindh, who decided to continue skiing
after she missed the '96 World Cup final with a sprained ankle
and didn't want to limp away from the sport. "Considering how
this season started, sometimes all that kept me going was that
this [world championships] could be it."
Before Lindh's victory, no U.S. skier had made it to a podium
all season. A knee injury in early December wiped out the season
for Street, the two-time World Cup downhill champion. Then in
January, Olympic downhill champ Tommy Moe sliced a tendon in his
right thumb while serving as a celebrity bartender at a pub in
Kitzbuhel, Austria. "I made it down [the Kitzbuhel course] five
times at 90 miles an hour," Moe said last week from Jackson
Hole, Wyo., where he is recuperating. "But I couldn't make it
out of the bar."
The injury to Street was the most devastating to U.S. hopes on
the circuit, but it had a liberating effect on Lindh. She has
long played the unassuming Mary Ann to Street's more glamorous
Ginger, opposites thrown together on a Gilligan's Island of a
team and forced to make do. "It's a lot easier to concentrate on
myself when there's not someone else there who's kind of
grabbing all the attention," Lindh said after Saturday's
victory. "That's something I haven't really overcome the last
few years. I hadn't been able to put her out of sight, out of
mind, and not worry about what she was doing."
Since the World Cup circuit moved to Europe in January, Lindh
has shown marked improvement, finishing ninth, 17th (in a
super-giant slalom) and then fourth in the final preworlds
downhill, in Laax, Switzerland. Three days before Saturday's
downhill she finished second to Seizinger in the final training
run at Sestriere.
"She terrorized the Europeans with that run," said Paul Major,
U.S. Skiing's vice president of athletics. "You could see it in
their eyes. Just when they think they have us beat, just when
they think we're not a factor--and having seen what we've done
this season, we weren't a factor--we show up."
Before the downhill, two days of snow and blustery winds had
spread four inches of fresh powder on the Italian Alps, changing
conditions on the Kandahar Banchetta course and causing
organizers to move the race up 2 1/2 hours, to 10:30 a.m. Just
before 11, a minute before Lindh was to burst out of the gate,
the sun broke through. At least I'll have a good look at the
track, Lindh thought.
When Lindh saw she had finished .57 ahead of Seizinger on a
course with few surprises, she felt sure she had a medal.
Zurbriggen and bronze medalist Pernilla Wiberg, who both came
down after Lindh, had faster times at the last interval (about
18 seconds from the finish) but lost precious hundredths on the
steep final section, which Lindh had skied better than anyone
else--just as she had in training--letting gravity and
experience carry her.
What's next for Lindh? The racing is fun, but the summer camps
and constant training demands of world-class skiing have worn
her to the nub. She wants to ski where she wants to ski--Jackson
Hole, Squaw Valley, little Bridger Bowl in Montana, even if it
means buying a lift ticket. This summer she will decide if she
wants to walk away as world champion and turn a deaf ear to the
siren song of next winter's Nagano Games. She has skied in three
Olympics and cherishes her silver medal, but she won't allow the
five rings to become manacles. When Lindh left Lillehammer in
1994 after finishing seventh in the downhill, she told Desantis,
"I'm so glad I don't have to do this again."
"The Olympics are so tense, it's incredible," Lindh says. "I
remember being in the starting gate. I could hear my heart
beating. I could feel it in my throat. And I didn't like feeling
So now it's either Nagano 101 or back to school and a page
crawling with derivatives. Sometimes the rest of your life isn't
all it's cracked up to be.