CALGARY, Canada — They started the Olympic women's downhill Thursday on Mt. Allan, and Pam Fletcher of the United States was the center of attention in the finish area, where television cameras, microphones and reporters' notebooks were thrust under her nose.
It seemingly was just as she'd dreamed it would be when she started skiing as a toddler at her parents' ski area in Nashoba Valley, Mass.
Except for one thing.
Her right leg was in a cast and she was standing there on crutches.
"It's hard to believe," she said. "You focus your whole life on one moment, and then boom, it's gone, and you can't get it back."
The "boom" had occurred more than an hour before the scheduled 10:30 a.m., PST, start of the race, which ultimately was postponed until today because of 60-m.p.h. winds.
But the wind had nothing to do with what happened to Fletcher. The 25-year-old skier from Acton, Mass., had just finished her final warmup run when she collided with a volunteer course worker, Steve Lounds, 27, of Calgary, and broke the fibula, the small bone, in her right leg, knocking her out of the Olympics.
And the dark clouds that drifted in shortly thereafter came as no surprise to the U.S. ski team, which has been racing under one for the entire season.
Ten U.S. skiers have suffered major injuries, and an 11th, 1984 Olympic champion Bill Johnson, still hasn't completely recovered from knee and back surgery early last year.
The women have been especially jinxed. Amy Livran was the first casualty last summer and never even got to start the season. Then, down went 1984 Olympic giant slalom gold medalist Debbie Armstrong, 1983 World Cup overall champion Tamara McKinney, Eva Twardokens, Tori Pillinger, Adele Allender and Diann Roffe, who won the giant slalom in the 1985 World Championships.
Armstrong and McKinney have recovered sufficiently to compete in the Winter Games, and Roffe, who missed the National Alpine Championships earlier this month with a bruised right thigh after skiing into a tree, should also be ready.
On the men's side, Doug Lewis and Mike Brown missed World Cup races with injuries, but both recently returned to action.
Harald Schoenhaar, director of the U.S. Alpine program, said there was nothing wrong with the team's training methods. "The only time the coaches might have been at fault was when Tamara got hurt, after they started skiing without any warmup exercises."
McKinney, who finally resumed racing at the Nationals less than two weeks ago, broke her left fibula last November at Copper Mountain, Colo.
According to Dr. Richard Steadman, the team's orthopedic surgeon, Fletcher is probably through for the season, which continues after the Olympics with three more weeks of World Cup racing in March.
Fletcher said the accident occurred as she was skiing across a cat-track after her run, "the way we were supposed to exit the slope," when she saw the course worker skiing toward her, going the opposite direction.
"He wasn't supposed to be there," she said, "and he was skiing pretty fast, just like I was. I tried to let him squeeze by me, but he crashed into my right side and knocked me down."
Asked how big the course worker was, the 5-foot 2-inch, 132-pound Fletcher said: "Maybe 6-2. All I know is he was a lot bigger than me. It felt like I'd hit a tree."
Lounds, the course worker, weighs about 220 pounds and is a former barroom bouncer. He reportedly suffered a bruised knee, with possible torn ligaments.
"My first reaction," Fletcher said, "was to say to myself, 'OK, stay cool. Just get up and go on like nothing happened.' But when I started to move, I could hear scraping and popping in my leg. Then Dr. Steadman said it's broken."
Fletcher was taken by toboggan to the first-aid room, where a fiberglass cast was applied, and she hobbled on crutches back to the finish area, with help from Bob Harkins, the team's operations manager and her steady boyfriend.
"I wanted to help cheer on the other American girls," she said.
The other U.S. downhillers--Hilary Lindh, Edith Thys and Kristin Krone--never made it out of the gate. The weather, which had been relatively calm and sunny while the forerunners were coming down, suddenly turned fierce as the first racer, Brigitte Oertli of Switzerland, started her run.
Oertli wasn't even halfway down when the wind caught her and swept her off her line, causing her to miss a gate. The race was halted and then, after a 1 1/2-hour delay, called off. Oertli will get another run today--if the race can be held. Otherwise, organizers will try to get in the women's combined slalom.
Fletcher was supposed to have started No. 1, and she said: "I thought (the draw) turned out great. I love to be No. 1. I can just concentrate on my race and let the others try to beat my time."