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High hopes on the slopes.


Light patches of summer fog were still drifting over the California coastline when 15 young women arrived at Stinson Beach, 20 miles north of San Francisco. Though dressed in various types of beachwear, these women weren't there to play. As members of the U.S. Ski Team, they had driven to this beach to continue a rigorous routine that had started hours earlier at the Marin Sports and Fitness Center.

Under the supervision of their trainer, Chris Tucker, the women loosened up with agility exercises. Then, splitting into groups of three, they began two hours of grueling, repetitive sprints in the sand. Perspiring profusely from the sheer physical effort, they ran a series of 25-, 50-, 70-, and 80-yard dashes. It was heavy going in the sand, but no one complained.

Tucker says America's ski racers must undergo such demanding summer workouts because "you can take three months off in football or baseball, but you can't afford such luxury in skiing. Ski racing is a sport that requires total dedication 11 months of the year, which means there's no time for school and boyfriends.'

World-class skier Tamara McKinney agrees with that philosophy. "1988 is an Olympic year, and we've got to be tougher than the Europeans if we expect to win our share of medals,' she emphasizes.

Indeed, when the 1988 Winter Games are held from February 13 to 28 in America's backyard at Calgary, Canada, Tamara and three other young Americans named Debbie Armstrong, Diann Roffe, and Pam Fletcher will be odds-on favorites to win one or more medals. Three of those racers have already won medals in Olympic and World Championship events, including two gold.

Who are these "Golden Girls' named Tamara, Debbie, Diann, and Pam? What have they done, and why are all four rated so highly as Olympic contenders for 1988?

Tamara McKinney is the superstar of America's ski team. She has won 18 World Cup races and ranks as the third best slalom and giant slalom skier of all time. She has also annexed six U.S. national titles and earned medals in the 1985 and 1987 Alpine Skiing World Championships in Italy and Switzerland, respectively.

The pint-sized, 25-year-old pistol from Squaw Valley, California, was the best woman skier on the planet in 1983. That's the year she became the only U.S. woman to win the overall World Cup title. Capturing that crown--which means you've beaten the best skiers in the world in the triple disciplines of slalom, giant slalom, and downhill--is akin to winning the Triple Crown in major-league baseball, a feat that hasn't been accomplished in 20 years.

McKinney is the youngest of seven children, a brood that has produced several other champion skiers; her mom was formerly a ski instructor at Mt. Rose, Nevada.

Unlike most ski racers, McKinney doesn't overpower a course. Instead, she finesses her way to victory, employing a feathery touch as her skis twist and turn on the snow.

"I call Tamara "Champ,' for obvious reasons,' says Tucker, serving his fourth season as the trainer of the women's alpine ski team. "She's a remarkable athlete. In ten years of racing all over the world for the United States, she has never suffered a serious injury.'

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the three other Golden Girls. Take Debbie Armstrong, best known for winning the giant slalom (GS) gold medal in the 1984 Winter Olympics at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. She also appeared to be on her way to superstar status when she suffered what many felt would be a career-ending crack-up in January 1986.

Armstrong was skiing so well that she was one of the favorites to win the downhill at the Bad Kleinkirchheim World Cup. But during the final training run, she misjudged a turn at 60 mph, spun out of control, slammed into the safety nets, and tore ligaments in her left knee. Her injury was so severe that doctors forced her to take a five-month rest.

But Armstrong appears to be on the comeback trail after winning the GS in the 1987 U.S. National Championships at Copper Mountain, Colorado. That's good news for her follow racers, because Armstrong is the "den mother,' the unquestioned leader, of the U.S. contingent.

Next there's Diann Roffe--called "Roofie' by her teammates. Ten days after Armstrong's devastating spill in January 1986, Roffe whacked her left knee against a GS pole in Oberstaufen, West Germany. She caught a sharp piece of metal from the gate pole on her kneecap, cutting it to the bone. She had to undergo surgery for a torn tendon. Then, earlier this year, she was hobbled again by a stress fracture in her right foot. But Tucker is sure she'll be ready for the Calgary Olympics.

That's important, because this petite, 53 phenomenon from Upstate New York stunned the alpine ski scene in 1985 by claiming the women's GS gold medal in the Alpine Skiing World Championships in Italy at the ripe old age of 17. "With that surprising victory,' Tucker says, "Roffe blossomed almost overnight from a teen-age girl into a young woman.'

Combining the right skis with the right wax, the right snow conditions, and the right attitude, Pam Fletcher looked unbeatable during a pair of World Cup races at Vail, Colorado, in March 1986. Though starting in the 30th position, she sizzled down Vail's dry powder snow to win the downhill. Then, just 24 hours later, she appeared to have the Super G race won when--only three gates from the finish line--she hooked a tip, flipped into the air, crashed heavily to the snow, and severely injured an ankle.

But "Fletch,' an effervescent, dynamic bundle of energy from Acton, Massachusetts, roared back in 1987. At the U.S. Nationals, she was the dominant force, with victories in the downhill, Super G, and combined.

Fletcher, 24 has been a skiing fanatic since her mother started teaching her at age three on the slopes of Nashoba Valley, Massachusetts, a mom-and-pop ski area owned by her family. Her dad likes to tell how "little Pam liked skiing so much that she would be in tears when we shut down the lifts at the end of the day.'

Today, instead of tears, Fletcher and her teammates are all smiles, because they're confident their string of injuries is behind them. At the same time, they're a bit apprehensive about the Olympics, because with the Winter Games being held close to home, they realize extra pressure will be exerted on their psyches.

With a touch of sarcasm, McKinney says, "It's amazing how the American public remembers that we have a ski team about once every four years. If it wasn't for the Olympics, our team would receive very little support from the average American. All the other nations--like the Swiss, Austrians, French, and Germans--subsidize their ski teams. But we're always in need of sponsors, and such financial support is a constant uphill battle.'

Tucker adds, "In Europe, McKinney and Armstrong are sports idols because of their many accomplishments. And all over Europe, the U.S. team is given the kind of recognition that the New York Giants receive in the States. But despite all the medals we've won, ski racing is a forgotten sport in the U.S.--except in an Olympic year.'

Nevertheless, most recreational skiers regard the Golden Girls as extremely lucky, because they get to race and train in such locales as Argentina, Austria, Norway, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia. Tucker, Armstrong, and McKinney have conflicting views, however, about the positive and negative effects of such travel.

"The Americans often are at a disadvantage in international ski racing, because 90 percent of the World Cup, World Championship, and Olympic events are held in Europe,' Tucker explains. "So each year, we're required to make great adjustments to different languages, foods, lifestyles, and time zones. Even our coaches and trainers have had an incredible burnout rate because we're traveling all the time while the Europeans are staying at home. I used to get so depressed I'd never unpack my suitcase.

"Security became an added pressure in Europe last year because of the threat of terrorism. We removed the fancy emblems from our Subaru station wagons and Volkswagen vans and painted them all white. Now we fly only Swissair to Europe and throughout Europe because of the emphasis on security.'

But Armstrong believes a ski racer's life is worth the price she pays. "I enjoy the lifestyle of a skier,' Armstrong says. "While I can't pursue a few things I like, I don't feel it's a sacrifice. This is what I want to do, and I'll stay with it as long as I enjoy it. I can do other things later in life. I know I'll continue skiing through 1989, because that's when the World Championships will be held on our home ground at Vail, Colorado.

"Life on the road makes you grow up fast because you learn to deal with people and how to handle situations. I got homestick the first year. But now I enjoy speaking French one day, German the next, and then Italian.'

McKinney is more ambivalent about her lifestyle. There are times she loves what she's doing. Then there are occasions when she talks about taking college courses in sunny San Diego--far from the wintry elements of the Alps. Bright and articulate, she had to halt her academic education after high school, like most world-class ski racers. It's obvious, however, she hasn't stopped learning.

"There's no question that travel is educational,' McKinney points out. "I've been to some wonderful places that aren't normally seen by girls my age. I have enjoyed the chance to experience many different cultures, and I can speak German and a little French.

"But our lifestyle wouldn't be considered a normal way of living. For example, last year I made 14 round-trip flights over the Atlantic. And there are times that living closely with a dozen other girls is difficult to take.'

Tucker says the Americans try to overcome the disadvantages of foreign languages, food, and lifestyle by being one big happy family. But it doesn't always work.' "A girl is rooming with her best friend--but the next day she must race against her,' Tucker explains. "They start getting on each other's nerves. As a result, the average roommate change is about once a month.'

McKinney says she has also disliked the burden of having the team leadership rest squarely on her 54 , 115-pound frame. But that's all in the past. Today this seasoned veteran is looking forward to the special aura of the Olympics. In fact, McKinney has three reasons she believes the U.S. women's team will excel at Calgary.

"First, we are in better physical shape than at any time in the last three years,' she says.

"Second, our mental attitude is great. I feel everything between the teaching staff and racers is now on a friendly and positive basis.

"Finally, the Olympics are being held on our side of the Atlantic. It's important to note that whenever World Cup events are held in the U.S. and Canada we have a tendency to ski much better. So we expect that "home-court advantage' will work in our favor in the Olympics.'

Photo: Pam Fletcher's sport may be all downhill, but her recent victories have her Olympic prospects looking nowhere but up.

Photo: Conditioning, mental attitude, and competing on home territory will help the ski team excel, Tamara McKinney says.

Photo: Women's sports come to a peak when skiers hit the Calgary slopes in the 1988 Winter Olympics, February 13-28.

Photo: Recovered from a series of accidents, Diann Roffe, who won a gold medal in Italy at the ripe old age of 17, will be ready for Calgary.

Photo: Competition in basketball, soccer, and volleyball has helped Debbie Armstrong, a 1984 Winter Olympics gold medalist, prepare for Calgary.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Roessing, Walter
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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