CALGARY, Canada — On a day when the Swiss finally struck gold in Alpine skiing, Americans continued to wallow in misfortune at the Winter Olympics here.
Vreni Schneider, deciding she had nothing to lose but a medal, came from fifth place after the first run to win the women's giant slalom, a race that more than half the field failed to finish.
One of the earliest casualties was Tamara McKinney, described earlier this week as the United States' best hope for a medal on Mt. Allan. Making her first start of the winter against world-class opposition, McKinney made "a simple mistake that any recreational skier could make" and took a tumble--less than 10 seconds into her first run.
Asked what happened, McKinney said: "I fell."
And the sun was out, and the snow was white.
Asked to elaborate, McKinney kept right on fleeing to the safety of the athletes' quarters.
Bob Harkins, the U.S. ski team's Alpine operations manager, said: "She just leaned in. I could see it coming a couple of gates earlier."
McKinney, who suffered a hairline fracture of her left leg in training late last November, is bothered by "a combination of things," according to Harkins. "She's been skiing well, but this was her first race of the season at this level. She's tense and under a lot of pressure."
A second opinion was sought, and Chip Woods, the women's head coach, said: "The course was too slick and hard. Tamara leaned into the hill, and her skis went out from under her. It was a simple mistake that any recreational skier could make, and it's common among racers, too."
McKinney, 25, the 1983 World Cup overall champion, was also expected to win a medal in the 1984 Winter Games at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, but the best she could manage was a fourth place in the giant slalom.
So, America's best skiing hope has just one chance left, in the slalom Friday and, according to Woods, McKinney's mishap in the giant slalom shouldn't have any lasting psychological effect.
"She'll be fine," he said.
Even as he was speaking, and before the other racers had even taken their second GS runs, McKinney slipped out the door of the lodge and headed for the chairlift to train for the slalom.
This time, she wouldn't even say, "I fell."
But, if asked, 31 other racers could say the same thing, including Spain's Blanca Fernandez-Ochoa, who led after the first run. On her second run, she caught an edge and spilled about one-quarter of the way down the course.
This assured Schneider of the gold, and also meant that Christa Kinshofer-Guetlein of West Germany would take the silver and Maria Walliser of Switzerland would earn her second bronze.
Only 29 women in the 64-skier field completed both runs. Three others were disqualified for missing gates.
Schneider, 23, also won the gold medal in the 1987 World Alpine Championships at Crans-Montana, Switzerland, and is tied with teammate Michela Figini for the 1988 World Cup overall lead with 185 points apiece, so this was not exactly a surprise.
"I expected to win a medal when I came here," said the sturdily built Schneider, who has dark hair, a prominent nose and a quick smile. "It didn't matter which one.
"I was too tight on the first run. I knew that I had to loosen up on the second or lose any chance for a medal, so I decided to relax and just go for it. I figured I would either win or go down trying, and the only way was to give it 150%. I'm happy to win. It's wonderful. But I'm sorry that Blanca didn't finish."
Although it was the first gold for the Swiss in Alpine skiing--compared with three for rival Austria--they now have a total of 9 medals, of a possible 21 thus far.
Kinshofer-Guetlein, 27, also won a silver medal in the 1980 Olympic giant slalom at Lake Placid, N.Y., but has had an up-and-down career, so to speak, ever since.
"In 1982," she said, "I had problems with the (West) German coaches, and they were too slow in adapting to the new slalom style using rapid gates. So, in 1983, I decided to ski for the Netherlands. But it took me three years to catch up to where I had been in the seedings.
"Finally, I had some good results last season for Holland, and I also won the slalom in the (West) German National Championships. When Klaus Mayr, who had been my coach in 1978-80, came back as coach of the women's team, he said, 'Let's get Kinsi to ski for Germany again,' so I decided to come home."
Schneider's winning time for two runs was 2:06.49, which gave her an edge of .93 of a second over Kinshofer-Guetlein. Walliser was another .30 back.
The defending Olympic champion in the event, Debbie Armstrong, 25, of Seattle, was 13th in 2:10.72, just .03 of a second behind teammate Diann Roffe, 20, of Williamson, N.Y., who was 12th and the leading American.
Armstrong, who has also been slow in regaining her competitive edge after a knee injury, said: "I made some major mistakes, especially on my second run. The courses were just too steep, with too many tight turns, but I did the best I could. I didn't ski a perfect race, but that's skiing."
Roffe, who has had several injuries and few good results since winning the giant slalom gold medal in the 1985 World Alpine Championships at Bormio, Italy, said: "I'm just happy to be among the top 15 in the world. I've learned a lot about expectations since '85. They can kill you. We put pressure on ourselves, and that's taught me not to dig my own grave."
As for McKinney's chances Friday, Roffe said: "She's won before, and she'll be back. She's a great lady."