U.S. Skier Criticizes Coaches : McGrath Cites Tension and Rebellion on Team

Times Assistant Sports Editor

The top American male ski racer is only the 57th best in the world, and Felix McGrath isn't shy about blaming this predicament on what he says is incompetent coaching.

"There's a tremendous amount of tension and even open rebellion on the men's team," said McGrath, who will race in the slalom Sunday at the World Alpine Ski championships. "The coaches are so up-tight and they want results so badly that they've been putting exaggerated pressure on the racers.

"As a result, everyone is pressing, and you can't ski well in that situation. You have to be happy and stay relaxed, and the results will come."

McGrath, 23, from Norwich, Vt., has seven points this season on the World Cup circuit, which ties him for No. 57 in the overall standings. Even so, he ranks No. 1 among the U.S. men.

Where have you gone, Phil and Steve Mahre . . . and you, Bill Johnson? A nation's ski team turns its lonely eyes to you.

Well, the Mahres have left and gone into retirement, taking Phil's three World Cup titles and their assortment of Olympic and World championship medals with them. And Johnson, who won the 1984 Olympic downhill, may be forced to join them if his knee and back don't heal quickly.

That leaves McGrath and his relatively inexperienced teammates to battle the waves of European racers.

"There's no reason we can't have a winning team," McGrath said Thursday as he watched the women's giant slalom on a television set in the lounge of the Hotel Beau-Site. "And we can do it with the talent we have. This is only my second year of World Cup. I'm still learning. Doug Lewis got a bronze medal in the downhill at the 1985 world championships, although he's having a rough time now. Tiger Shaw has been in the top 15 in giant slalom. Bob Ormsby and Troy Watts are both coming along.

"I'm very optimistic about the future. But it all goes back to the coaches. They get down when we don't do well, and they may not even realize that the pressure they put on us makes us do even worse."

The articulate McGrath, whose father, Robert, is a professor of art history at Dartmouth, talked at length about the team, his life on the World Cup circuit and why he chose ski racing over other more lucrative sports after being named athlete of the year at Hanover High School in New Hampshire in 1981.

He was enjoying--or enduring--an afternoon of enforced idleness caused by a sprained right ankle.

"I twisted it while playing volleyball on Tuesday," he said. "The coaches had been on our case to get more exercise when we weren't skiing, like they think the Europeans do. They don't realize that we all do a lot of working out on our own, and I've played volleyball or basketball at least 10 times in the last month between races."

Despite his injury, McGrath started the first run of the men's giant slalom Wednesday and had the 21st-fastest time among 96 racers.

"If I'd been closer to the lead, I would have gone in the second run," he said. "But I felt some twinges several times, and I thought it was more important to be in good condition for the slalom, my specialty, than to finish 21st in the giant slalom."

The volleyball hassle, according to McGrath, was a typical example of the coaches' tenseness.

Harald Schoenhaar is in overall charge of both the men and women on the U.S. ski team, but McGrath said: "We don't have much contact with Harald. All the guys in slalom and giant slalom work mainly with Jean Pierre Chatellard and George Capaul. They have equal authority now, but last year J.P. was running things."

Chatellard, a Frenchman, once coached Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, and McGrath said: "When he first came here two years ago, he tried to make us all ski like Stenmark, turning us into clones. But there's only one skier like Stenmark. Tiger (Shaw) has never recovered from the experience.

"Anyway, it was a disaster for everyone, so we just decided to ski the old way, and we started getting results."

The other coach, Capaul, a native of Switzerland, worked with McGrath at Waterville Valley, N.H., so there is some rapport there. But McGrath said: "I plan to continue racing through the 1989 World Championships (at Vail, Colo.), and I would prefer not to have Chatellard as my coach any longer. Of course, it's not my decision.

"The girls got rid of an ineffective coach after last season, but they had some good results the year before to back them up. Unfortunately, we're not in any position to go to the trustees (of the U.S. ski team) because we wouldn't be dealing from the same strength."

McGrath became acquainted with Capaul while attending a tutorial school that included skiing in its curriculum.

"I went there during the winter months and to Hanover High the rest of the time," said McGrath, who raced at just about every age level. "I also played tennis and soccer, but I decided on ski racing as a career when I was 18, after finishing second in the slalom at the U.S. nationals.

"Obviously, I didn't do it for the money. I just like skiing.

"There's no question that we lose a lot of potentially good ski racers in the United States because most of the top athletes go where the money is, to football, baseball or other team sports. I mean, the 25th-best baseball player can earn a million dollars a year. I'm 25th in the world in the slalom, and I make considerably less."

Is he in six figures?

"Considerably less than six figures," he said, laughing.

"Athletes in team sports can also compete without having to travel very far and for much less cost. They can live at home and don't have to go to Europe for half the year."

The long periods in Europe are often difficult for young American racers, according to McGrath, who supports the idea of establishing a home base in a central Alpine location--"someplace where we can kick our shoes off, eat an American meal and forget about skiing for a few days between races."

He said that on his first trip to Europe, he was "like a kid on a merry-go-round. I was looking at everything and taking pictures, just excited to be over here. But then it turned into a job, and I had to work hard to be competitive. It was a grind."

Now, after being in Europe almost constantly since November, McGrath said: "Everyone just wants to go home. We've been in close quarters all this time and we're starting to get on each other's nerves. The Swiss come to the United States to race for two weeks and they start complaining about being away from home that long.

"The big problem is that when you're not happy, it leads to negative thoughts and poor results. When you're happy, it triggers a higher level of skiing.

"Some people may think the international ski racing circuit is glamorous, but it's only glamorous when you're winning."

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