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Winter Olympics: Calgary : U.S. Hopes: It's All Downhill From Here : Retirements, Injuries Plague Alpine Skiers

February 11, 1988|BOB LOCHNER | Times Assistant Sports Editor

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — The mood in 1984 was expectant, euphoric, even arrogant, as the U.S. Alpine ski team took to the slopes for the Winter Olympics at Sarajevo.

The Mahre brothers had been on the cover of Time magazine along with Tamara McKinney, and the talk was of nothing but gold. And even before the training runs started in Yugoslavia, there was brash Bill Johnson telling the reporters of the world that no way could he miss winning the downhill.

It turned out he was right, and American Alpine skiers wound up taking five of the eight medals brought home by the U.S. Olympic team, including three of the four golds.

Now, about Calgary: Forget it.

Look to the figure skaters for medals. Or maybe the women lugers. Alpine skiing is in a down year. Whether it's a rebuilding year remains to be seen.

The 1988 outlook was summed up, almost apologetically, by U.S. Alpine Director Harald Schoenhaar, who said here the other day: "We are not ashamed to send athletes to Calgary who probably won't have a chance to win medals. We may not be the best team in the world, but we are going up there to compete, not just to have a presence in the Games."

What happened in the intervening four years? Well, retirements, injuries, aging, slowing down and a failure to develop younger ski racers all happened:

Phil and Steve Mahre, who won the gold and silver in the men's slalom, and Christin Cooper, silver medalist in the women's giant slalom, retired.

Johnson semi-retired while enjoying his men's downhill gold medal for a season, then suffered knee and back injuries that prevented him from making this year's Olympic team.

Debbie Armstrong, gold medalist in the women's giant slalom, was slowed by a knee injury and missed all of the December World Cup races. Asked how she felt about Calgary, Armstrong said: "I'm excited and optimistic. I went to Sarajevo thinking 1-2-3, and I'm going to Canada thinking the same thing."

McKinney, who won the World Cup in 1983 but could manage only a fourth place in the women's giant slalom at Sarajevo, has missed all of this winter's races with a leg injury and doesn't figure to have the sharpness needed to compete.

Injuries also felled three medalists in the 1985 World Championships--Diann Roffe, who won a giant slalom gold; Eva Twardokens, giant slalom bronze, and Doug Lewis, downhill bronze. Twardokens is out for the season. Roffe and Lewis are on the Olympic team but unlikely to crack the top 10.

The two longshot possibilities for medals are Pam Fletcher, in the women's downhill and super-G, and Felix McGrath, in the men's slalom and giant slalom.

Fletcher, 25, of Acton, Mass., who won a World Cup downhill at Vail, Colo., in March 1986, seems to have herself psyched for an all-out effort at Calgary, and she's trying to pull her teammates along.

"I think we've got a good team with lots of potential," she said. "We're going to surprise some people, and the main reason is because the Olympics are in North America. We'll have the Europeans on our mountains, speaking our language and eating our food this time, and there'll be a lot of people there to root us on.

"The fact that we're underdogs puts us at an advantage. Let Sports Illustrated predict whatever it wants. I'm confident we'll do well because we're racing in our own back yard."

Well, actually, it's our neighbors' back yard, but they're all the same Rocky Mountains.

Fletcher is one of only four American women with World Cup points so far this winter. She's tied for 40th place in the standings with 19 in downhill and combined.

Edith Thys is tied for 48th with 13 in downhill and super-G; Hilary Lindh is 66th with 6 in downhill, and Heidi Voelker is tied for 76th with 1 point in slalom.

The men's World Cup list is even more indicative of America's dismal Alpine status. McGrath, 25 next month, of Norwich, Vt., is tied for 20th place with 37 points, 22 in slalom, 8 in giant slalom and 7 in combined. After him, there are Jeff Olson, tied for 85th with 5 in downhill, and A.J. Kitt, tied for 88th with 4 in downhill.

So much for the cold, hard numbers.

What they add up to is a lot of hard-to-pronounce Swiss, Austrian, French, Yugoslav and Italian names on television.

THE OUTLOOK

The Alpine events have been expanded from 6 to 10 since the last Winter Games with the addition of a super giant slalom (super-G) and a combined, for both men and women.

The races, with a brief description of each and the leading contenders:

DOWNHILL--The high-speed race of about two miles for men, shorter for women, with a minimum of turns.

Men--Pirmin Zurbriggen, Daniel Mahrer, Franz Heinzer and Peter Mueller of Switzerland; Michael Mair of Italy, and Rob Boyd of Canada.

Women--Michela Figini, Maria Walliser, Brigitte Oertli and Beatrice Gafner of Switzerland; Sigrid Wolf of Austria; Karen Percy and Laurie Graham of Canada, and Marina Kiehl of West Germany.

SUPER-G--Shorter than a downhill but with more gates to force turns.

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