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Hot, Cold and Gold : Olympic Medals, a World Cup Championship and Its Best Performance in 20 Years. So Why No Parades for the U.S. Ski Team?

August 13, 1995|BILL STALL | Bill Stall is a Times political writer. His last piece for the magazine was a profile of former Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

"I suck! I'm quitting!" Picabo Street fumes, hurling her ski racer's helmet in disgust. The impact of the missile sprays spring snow onto a nearby jumble of day packs, water bottles and assorted gear at the foot of the ski lift. Street's ponytail flashes angrily in the mile-high sunlight of central Oregon's Mt. Bachelor. Street is not skiing very well today and she's pissed.

The 24-year-old stomps out of her skis and throws a jacket over the crazy spider-web pattern of her U.S. Ski Team uniform. An assistant coach grins knowingly. The angrier Street gets, the harder she works.

It is the middle of May. Most of the nation's 10 million recreational skiers have packed away their skis long ago, but the U.S. Ski Team is just getting back to work, barely six weeks after the final races of a spectacular 1994-'95 season. For the U.S. women's downhill team, this is just one of the first training runs leading to the 1995-'96 international ski-racing season. There will be plenty more before the first race in November. The intensity of the training will pick up at subsequent camps through the summer, at Mt. Hood in Oregon and later in Chile.

The men have finished their spring camp at California's Mammoth Mountain, in winter-like conditions, but they would return to Mammoth in mid-July and also planned a training camp in New Zealand for August.

Each year, from November through March, a dozen or so of America's top skiers travel the World Cup ski-racing circuit, competing against the best of the world in four alpine racing disciplines: downhill, super G, slalom and giant slalom. As many as 50 racers are on the U.S. ski team's men's and women's A and B squads, but a relative handful race regularly on the World Cup circuit. Nevertheless, everyone is either training or racing year round.

"I think the general perception is that when winter rolls around, you go skiing. And when the Olympics roll around, you go racing. We train 11 months a year, the way most of these pro ball athletes train," says downhiller AJ Kitt.

In Europe, the ski season opens with as much fanfare as baseball season in the United States and is just as avidly followed, figuratively and literally, from race site to race site throughout the major resorts in Europe, North America and Japan. In all, roughly 150 men and 100 women representing about 20 countries will run in more than 70 World Cup races in a season; athletes who, for the most part, are as celebrated in their homelands as the best pro basketball and football players are here.

"With the Austrians, their summer training runs are printed in the paper," says U.S. slalom racer Heidi Voelker. "Just training runs."

Things are a little different in the States. At Mt. Bachelor this May, the training goes without media mention. The skiers are on the snow by 7 each morning. In the afternoons, back in Bend, 20 miles away, there is dry-land training--weightlifting, volleyball, mountain biking.

At a team meeting that evening, Picabo Street, who is from Sun Valley, Ida., laughs about her bad day. Quitting is, of course, the last thing on her mind. Right now, she's at the top of the world. She has come off a season in which she dominated the premier event of international ski racing as no American ever has. Street won six of nine downhill races on the World Cup circuit, including her last five.

After the finale at Bormio, Italy, in March, she became the first American--male or female--to be awarded the crystal cup signifying a world downhill championship. (World Cup points are awarded on a sliding scale to the top finishers in each race: 100 for first, 80 for second and so on. The top point-getter in each discipline at the end of the year wins the individual world cup. The grand prize goes to the overall winner.)

Even more remarkable, the woman standing next to Street on the podium, the No. 2 downhiller of the year, also was an American. Hilary Lindh, then 25, out of Juneau, Alaska, was a veteran of nearly 10 years on the World Cup circuit before Street burst on the scene with her silver medal finish in downhill at the 1994 Olympics in Norway. Of the three races Street didn't win, Lindh won two. Lindh, who has her own Olympic silver medal in downhill from 1992, placed sixth or better in seven of her races.

The fact that the Americans had scored eight victories in nine races was stunning--galling--to the Europeans, who are not accustomed to upstart Americans walking off with trophies they have always considered their own. There is a reason they call it alpine ski racing.

Near the end of the season, Lindh rode up a chair lift with one of the Austrian coaches. He said, "You know, we could handle maybe one American on top. But two is unbearable."

Meanwhile, the American men were not exactly resting in their bindings. They weren't yet a consistent power, but they were on the threshold.

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