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50 YEARS OF GOING UPHILL . . . Why Can't U.S. Team Celebrate? : Five Decades Later, American Ski Racers Still Need a Lift

February 13, 1986|BOB LOCHNER | Times Assistant Sports Editor

SUN VALLEY, Ida. — They've just finished celebrating 50 years of downhill skiing in America at this fabled resort in the Sawtooth Mountains, but unfortunately, no one has told the U.S. Ski Team. This nation's racers are currently performing as if it were their first time on skis.

There isn't a single U.S. competitor in the top 15 of either the men's or women's World Cup standings. There are Swiss (plenty of Swiss), Austrians, West Germans, Italians, Swedes, Czechs, Yugoslavs and even a citizen of Luxembourg.

This week, at last, there appears to be a better-than-even chance of Americans taking some first places during the National Alpine Championships at Copper Mountain, Colo. No Europeans are entered, but a few Canadians will be there.

It was exactly one year ago that Harald Schoenhaar, director of the U.S. Alpine program, said: "We have many fine young racers. All they need is a little more experience. Debbie Armstrong has only been racing at this level for less than three years. She will become consistent in time."

So far this winter, the experience has been a ghastly one for the young racers, with weather problems causing a major reshuffling of the schedule and top-15 finishes (which earn World Cup points) a rarity. In Armstrong's case, her potential consistency is going to have to wait for another year. The 1984 Olympic giant slalom gold medalist tore up a knee Jan. 9 at Badgastein, Austria, and is out for the season.

Diann Roffe, 18, the 1985 World Cup giant slalom champion, also injured a knee Jan. 19 at Oberstaufen, West Germany, but is expected to return for the World Cup races in North America next month.

However, Tamara McKinney, the 1983 World Cup overall winner, has been relatively healthy--and unimpressive.

On the men's side, the A team consists of downhillers Bill Johnson, the '84 Olympic champion, and Doug Lewis, bronze medalist in the '85 World Championships. They've had a few top-15 placings between them, but more often, they've been down in the 20s and 30s, or worse.

In fact, except for Johnson's 14th place in '84, the only American men to rank in the top 15 of the World Cup overall standings since 1973 were named Mahre.

Why can't the United States, with its millions of skiers, consistently maintain a championship level in international ski racing, with the kind of depth that enables much smaller countries such as Switzerland and Austria to scarcely skip a beat if one or two stars injure themselves or retire?

Or, to phrase the question another way, what can be done to improve the sad state of American ski racing in 1986 and in the future, including the 1987 World Championships at Crans-Montana, Switzerland, and the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary, Canada.

"Maybe we should go down to the ghetto and enroll all the black kids we can find in a junior ski racing program," Phil Mahre said the other day, only half in jest.

"One of the problems is that skiing has been an elitist sport. A young racer either had to have rich parents or grow up in a ski resort."

Of course, in the case of Mahre and his twin brother, Steve, it was the latter. Their father managed the White Pass ski area in Washington, and Phil said, "We practically lived on skis."

But the three-time World Cup overall champion who retired shortly after winning the '84 Olympic slalom said there is an even more fundamental reason for Americans, especially the men, lagging in ski racing.

"There's a lack of desire among athletes in all sports," he said. "It has become, 'Pay me now, and I'll perform later.' This has carried over into ski racing. When Steve and I started racing, we did it because we loved to ski. Today, money is the major factor, not sport.

"We have to make young athletes aware that they can go out there and earn a half-million dollars annually in ski racing (as Mahre did in his last years), but only if they work at it."

"There are too many distractions in this country, otherwise. It's hard to get a kid to go into ski racing when all the publicity is about some pro football player being paid $6 million for five years."

In Europe, it's a different matter, according to Mahre, who said: "Over there, it's either soccer or skiing for a young athlete who wants to become rich and famous. There are too many other options in the United States."

Generally, the U.S. women's team has been stronger than the men, which Mahre said is "because women have always had fewer options, from the grassroots up, so they can concentrate on a sport such as ski racing and stay with it longer."

Regardless of the money and options (or lack of them), Mahre said: "A youngster has to have the motivation and the inner drive to excel, or all the training in the world won't help. Steve and I made the U.S. Ski Team without any formal coaching. You can coach a winner, but you can't make a winner. It has to come from within."

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