Pam Ann Fletcher didn't win the World Cup super giant slalom Sunday on Vail Mountain, but once again she stopped the show.
The suddenly emerging American ski racing star, who beat the best the world could offer in Saturday's downhill, was stuck down there in the No. 38 starting position because of her relative inexperience.
That didn't stop her, however, from roaring past the intermediate checkpoint with the second fastest time of the day, right behind the leader in the clubhouse, Marina Kiehl.
The congratulatory hugs and pats suddenly stopped in the West German camp as everyone turned toward the steep pitch just above the finish area called the Austrian Face.
Moments later, Fletcher came sailing over the crest, bound for glory and a potential sweep of the two days of racing here. She took the first of the finishing gates sharply, then . . . disaster.
On the third gate from the bottom, one of her ski tips hooked a pole holding up the flag, cart-wheeling her into the air and down the slope, twisting and turning all the way to the bottom.
Dr. Richard Steadman, the South Lake Tahoe orthopedic surgeon who has performed miracles for the U.S. Ski Team, rushed through the snow to her side and anxiously began examining her.
After about 10 minutes, during which time the race continued but the spectators watched Fletcher gingerly move her limbs and finally stand, Steadman said, "It doesn't look too serious, just a possible sprain of her right ankle. She'll miss the rest of this season, but she should have no problem making a full recovery."
Fletcher, who less than 24 hours before had been bubbling out of control after her surprise first place in the downhill, was unable to hide her disappointment as she said, "Well, I guess I gave everyone some excitement again. I just started my turn too early and came in too tight to the gate."
Then, hobbling slightly, she went to the local hospital for a more complete examination that downgraded Steadman's preliminary diagnosis to strained ankle ligaments.
Fletcher's misfortune ensured both a victory and the season-long World Cup super giant slalom title for Kiehl. The 21-year-old native of Munich was timed in 1:23.40 for her run down the course of slightly more than a mile in length, which is kind of a controlled downhill, with several more check gates--but fewer than in a regular giant slalom.
Anita Wachter of Austria was second in 1:23.64, Liisa Savijarvi of Canada third in 1:23.90. The top U.S. finisher was Eva Twardokens, who was 17th in 1:25.19, as only 58 of the 83 racers were able to make it all the way down the track that the racers called the toughest on the circuit.
Kiehl finished with 75 points in the final super giant slalom standings, 19 more than runner-up Savijarvi.
The battle for the World Cup women's overall championship remained unsettled as the leader, Maria Walliser of Switzerland, could manage no better than a 12th place. She increased her lead over teammate Erika Hess by four points, 275 to 238, but with four more races remaining--two giant slaloms and a slalom this week at Waterville Valley, N.H., and a giant slalom next weekend at Bromont (Quebec), Canada--Hess still has the potential to climb as high as 294 points.
The Swiss women continued to hold down the top five places in the women's standings, with Michela Figini and Brigitte Oertli tied for third with 177 points apiece and Vreni Schneider fifth with 170.
Sunday's race typified U.S. ski racing fortunes this season: a spill, unimpressive times and a DNF by one of the stars, in this case Tamara McKinney.
McKinney, World Cup overall champion in 1983, missed a gate, skied off the course and did not finish. Although she may turn in one last big effort later this week, McKinney is clearly a troubled young woman, and reportedly it is because of an ongoing lack of rapport with the coach of the U.S. women's team, Brad Ghent.
Harald Schoenhaar, director of the U.S. Alpine program, avoided commenting directly on the matter but said: "There's no question that our technical skiers (in slalom and giant slalom) have not skied up to their capabilities this season. Maybe their training was wrong. We will have to sit down and evaluate what went wrong. But mentally, when racers are losing, everything is compounded, and one loss builds on another, just making the situation worse."
One question arising out of this season's poor performance by the U.S. Ski Team is whether it will cause an erosion in financial support. One major sponsor, Subaru, said it won't. "We've been behind the U.S. Ski Team for 10 years," corporate affairs manager Syd Havely said, "and we're signed on through at least 1989. Nothing has changed in our commitment to ski racing, either as a result of this season's American showing or the events at Aspen last weekend."
Havely, of course, was referring to, first, the refusal by the top three finishers in the World Cup men's downhill at Aspen, Colo., to wear their racing bibs (with race sponsor Subaru's logo) on the victory stand, and then, the next day's boycott of a giant slalom by the racers, who claimed that the course had been inadequately prepared.
"We did feel that the jury was correct in saying that the race should go on," Havely said. "Now, it's obvious that everyone is going to have to come together and reach some form of agreement to keep something like this from happening again."
There were no bib or boycott problems here during the women's races.
"Heck," said Canada's Savijarvi, "We're happy to have sponsors and just thankful for their interest and support. And if any of us thought a course was unsafe, we might individually decide not to ski, but I don't think we'd ever boycott a race."
So, Vail's big week came off without a major hitch. The resort is gradually gearing up for its role of host to the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships. A "stadium" is in the works at the bottom of the race courses, and a large television screen, which enables spectators to follow each racer all the way down, was used this weekend.
Earlier in the week, former Austrian star Anderl Molterer, 54, won a Legends of Skiing downhill race (with the help of a handicap), as Pepi Stiegler, another ex-Austrian international racer, placed second and Billy Kidd, America's 1970 world champion, finished third.
The Legends event, which is an annual fixture at Vail, is "becoming more popular than the World Cup," according to resort spokesman Craig Altschul. "We had 8,000 spectators at a midweek race, the first time that the old-timers have competed in a downhill. I suppose it's like golf's seniors' tour. The names are ones that people can recognize."