Boy, we really showed those Europeans how to ski last year in the Winter Olympics, right?
American technical genius and superior athletic ability finally came to the top at Sarajevo: Six Alpine races--three gold medals, two silvers and there will be no stopping us now.
Or so everyone thought.
One year after the conquest of Yugoslavia, the United States ranks only sixth among the world's ski-racing countries, barely ahead of No. 7 Luxembourg and No. 8 Liechtenstein. American women are fifth, but the men are almost out of sight behind 11 others in the Nations' Cup standings.
Asked last weekend how things are going for his team, Harald Schoenhaar, the new U.S. Alpine program director, said without hesitation: "Good!"
Well, no--and yes.
The 1985 U.S. Ski Team media guide proudly displays the five Olympic medals on its cover, but in terms of this season, they should have put a big X across three of them. Twins Phil and Steve Mahre, who won the gold and silver in the men's slalom, retired last spring, as did Christin Cooper, who won the silver in the women's giant slalom. Debbie Armstrong, gold-medal winner in the women's giant slalom, skied for part of the winter as if she had retired.
As for Bill Johnson, who won the gold in the men's downhill, he might just as well have retired. That way, he could have played himself in "Guts and Glory, the Bill Johnson Story." Check local listings next September for time and channel.
So, what's good about it, Harald?
"We have many fine young racers," Schoenhaar said during the National Alpine Championships at Copper Mountain, Colo. "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. And you saw what happened at Bormio. That was only the beginning."
What happened was this: Armstrong, 21, finished a respectable fourth in the women's giant slalom at the biennial World Alpine Championships held earlier this month in Italy. But teammates Diann Roffe, 17, and Eva Twardokens, 19, sent a shock wave through the Alps by winning the gold and bronze medals, respectively.
Nor was that all. Tamara McKinney, 22, the 1982-83 World Cup overall champion, took a bronze in the women's combined event, and Doug Lewis, 21, skied down a treacherous, icy course to give the United States its fourth world championship medal of the week, a bronze in the men's downhill.
So there, take that, Switzerland and Austria and all you other ski countries, and now let's see what happens when the World Cup circuit, which doesn't include the Bormio races in its point totals, resumes next month in North America.
The U.S. Ski Team, unique in American amateur sports because of its year-to-year continuity and its annual global competitive schedule, returned home right after the world championships and gathered along with a multitude of aspiring hopefuls for a kind of National Ski Festival at Copper Mountain.
Missing were Johnson, Lewis and three other U.S. male downhillers, who stayed abroad to compete in their specialty at Bad Kleinkircheim, Austria, last Thursday. Their time might have been better spent in Colorado. Malibu resident Johnson, whose best placings so far this season have been a 7th and a 10th, finished 17th. Lewis was 23rd.
Commenting on the results, Erik Steinberg, assistant men's downhill coach, said: "I think Billy has learned a lesson. He started the season out of shape. There was too much press . . . too many cocktail parties. He's still great in the flats (of a downhill course), but he just wasn't physically capable of handling some of the more difficult courses.
"Lewis, on the other hand, is from the East (Vermont) and likes hard, icy courses. We're going to get much more longevity on the team out of Doug than we will out of Billy."
That kind of figures. Johnson will be 25 next month but should be able to make it through the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary if other factors don't intervene. Lewis, a serious young man who plays the cello and trains hard, could be around through the '92 Games, wherever they may be.
In the absence of Johnson, Lewis, et al., the top American in the men's downhill at Copper was a bicycle racer. Steve Hegg, 22, finished only .04 of a second behind winner Brian Stemmle of Canada, and afterward, he figured that he'd earned a spot on the varsity.
Steinberg concurred, saying, "Steve is very competitive. He won the national title in 1982, so we've been willing to work around his bicycle racing."
Hegg, from Dana Point, took last winter off from ski-racing to prepare for the Los Angeles Summer Games, in which he won a gold medal in pursuit cycling. He refused to confirm or deny allegations that many American cyclists underwent so-called blood-doping during the Olympics but emphasized that the controversial practice would be of no benefit to ski racers, "except it might give them a few more red corpuscles and make breathing easier at the start."
Asked if he would have finished ahead of the top five Americans had they been at Copper, Hegg said: "My name isn't Bill Johnson, so I'm not going to make any claims like that. In fact, Bill has been disturbed at me ever since I beat him in the '82 Nationals. But I rode with him in a van in Zurich last month, and he actually talked to me. So, I'm ready to bury the hatchet.
"All last year, while I was cycling, I kept thinking about skiing and beating Johnson. Now, I'm happy to be back on the team because it's much closer together than ever before."
While the Mahres were headlining the U.S. Ski Team, they kept to themselves, moving around Europe with assistant coach Tom Kelly, an easygoing Irishman who was more of a traveling secretary and confidant.
"The Mahres didn't need a coach," said the German-born Schoenhaar, 44, who moved up to the top job when Bill Marolt left to become athletic director at the University of Colorado. "They coached themselves. But some of the other technical (slalom and giant slalom) specialists were left out in the cold.
"Now, we have a new men's technical coach in Jean Pierre Chatellard, and he is doing some new things. I am just afraid it is too late to benefit some of the older racers like John Buxman and Tiger Shaw. But the new ones, yes, they should improve quickly, because they don't have to un-learn the old ways."
One of the potential stars cited by Schoenhaar, Jack Miller, 19, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., placed second behind Shaw in the men's giant slalom at the Nationals, causing Shaw, 23, of Burlington, Vt., to say: "I'm going to continue racing as long as I keep improving and having fun. It just depends on how many of the younger guys pass me."
Miller was elated by his showing at Copper, saying: "I had a point to make. I felt I should have been one of our four entrants in the giant slalom at Bormio. This proves it."
The technical half of the American men's team showed so little potential in December that Chatellard, who formerly coached for Sweden, brought them home from Europe to concentrate on fundamentals, passing up the World Cup until after New Year's. They also skipped two races last weekend in Yugoslavia to be at Copper.
Said Hansi Standteiner, 24, of Squaw Valley: "Before, with Phil and Steve on the team, the rest of us were just thrown on the World Cup circuit each year to fend for ourselves. Now, we're trying to build on our experience and get some results."
Phil Mahre, the three-time World Cup overall champion who is in the neighborhood this week for a session of the newly established Mahre Training Center at Keystone, Colo., wasn't particularly enthusiastic about Chatellard's methods, saying: "I never cared for the (slalom) courses he set. And now, he has changed a lot of the ways our racers train. You can't do that with established athletes. Everybody has his own way of skiing.
"But regardless of the problems this year, sooner or later someone is going to come along who will be as good as Steve and me, or better. I always thought Buxman and Shaw and the others received as much attention as we did. Yet, every year, it was the same. No results. I could never understand it. If you can win a Europa Cup (B circuit) race, you should be able to make the top 10 in the World Cup. It's not that big a jump."
The post-Olympic coaching changes have also affected Tamara McKinney, but in a different way.
Said Inez Aimee, the team's executive director for three seasons until last fall: "Tamara had a very close relationship with Michel Rudigoz and John Atkins and some of the others who are no longer directly involved with the women's team. They had their ways of doing things. She's had to make some adjustments this season, and it hasn't been easy for her."
McKinney, 22, from Squaw Valley, has won only one race so far this season and ranks eighth in the World Cup women's standings. Not bad, but somewhat below expectations for her. She may have further hampered her chances of moving up when she sprained her right knee during a bit of horseplay with Heidi Bowes before the start of the downhill at Copper.
The downhill winner was Holly Beth Flanders, 27, of Deerfield, N.H., who later injected another reason for the disappointing World Cup showing of the American women so far this season. "Last spring, we lost the ski company rep who had been taking care of our skis," she said. "In downhill, especially, the preparation of skis is really important. Anyway, in December, we just picked up this Frenchman who was a nice guy but not very good with skis, and this has really hurt us."
Schoenhaar confirmed the problem. "I was really angry at Dynastar (the ski company)," he said. "I told them that if they couldn't do better than that, they should get out of the racing business. They even fouled up the French team, from their own country.
"There are going to be some changes made."
Through all the somewhat unsettling changes in administration, coaching and ski reps, two new faces have emerged: Diann Roffe and Eva Twardokens. Together with McKinney and Armstrong, they should give the women's team outstanding depth, especially in giant slalom.
Roffe, from Williamson, N.Y., is still a summer session shy of receiving her high school diploma from Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, but she has been a quick study in learning how to handle the attention generated by her gold medal at Bormio.
"I've been rooming with Debbie (Armstrong) and I've seen all the mail she gets, and the requests for this and that because of her Olympic gold medal," Roffe said. "After I won, she looked at me and said, 'OK, now just wait and see what happens to you.'
"I don't think it's really sunk in yet. And it hasn't really changed me. I don't have any long-range goals. If I can just keep improving my skiing, everything will fall into place."
Twardokens, who won the women's giant slalom at Copper when Roffe fell on her second run, said that at the start of the season, she "just wanted to make the top 15 and maybe pop one into the top five." She's right on schedule, with 67 World Cup points, including a second place in the super giant slalom at Arosa, Switzerland.
Her bronze at Bormio was the second world-championship medal for the Twardokens family. Her father, George, won a bronze as a member of the Polish team in the 1957 World Fencing Championships at Philadelphia and promptly defected. He settled in Reno, where he became coach of the University of Nevada ski team and is now a professor of kinesiology and biomechanics.
While the new wave is washing over the women's team, one of the old guard, Cindy Nelson, made what may have been her last stand in the Nationals. Nellie, as she is affectionately called by the younger racers who look upon her almost as a mother, finished third in the giant slalom.
Nelson, who will be 30 in August, quickly turned aside any thoughts of returning in 1985-86, saying: "I raced this winter because I wasn't satisfied with last season (when she suffered a knee injury). At the same time, when I came back, I said I would definitely retire this spring. That's still definite.
"My knee is probably close to 100%, but it still hurts, and I can tell when there's going to be a change in the weather. The screws in it let me know."
Nelson admitted that since she joined the team in 1971, there have been a lot of peaks and valleys. "But it has become a much more professional team all the way around, from the administration to the coaches to the service reps. They give the racers the opportunity to train and be No. 1, and that's all you can ask for."
Money, of course, is still the key ingredient in providing the racers with the opportunity to be No. 1, and this has been a tight one for the U.S. Ski Team.
"That's only natural in a post-Olympic year," said Michael Harrigan, who became executive director in October. "The budget had to be reduced in midstream because certain corporate sponsors were only aboard for the Olympics and did not return for fiscal '85.
"We are now not only attempting to generate more corporate involvement but also to increase donations and direct-mail appeals for funds. There are millions of skiers out there, and it's an affluent market."
The cuts in the budget, which ranges from $4 million to $5 million annually to cover the operations of both the Alpine and Nordic teams were felt most on the lower developmental levels of racing.
Schoenhaar said that his funds had been sliced by about 60%, but he was able to restore half of that through additional money from equipment suppliers and friends.
Harrigan, interviewed last weekend, said the problem is only temporary, and he seemed at least equally concerned about what the Bill Johnson made-for-TV movie will do to the image of the U.S. Ski Team.
"I've read the script," he said. "And instead of it being the story of how a young delinquent straightens out his life through ski-racing, it's got him in bed with a girl just about anytime he's not on the hill. My daughter idolizes Bill Johnson, but she's not going to watch that movie."