Slick, Quick and Tops in the Slaloms, Tamara Mckinney Reaches Out for the World Cup
03/28/1983 at 01:00 AM EST
Six years ago, at Heavenly Valley, Calif., Tamara McKinney stood helplessly at the finish as her older sister Sheila lost a ski and plunged off a downhill course into a fence, sustaining serious head injuries and effectively ending her racing career. "There was a neurosurgeon standing about 300 yards away, and he took Sheila to the hospital," Tamara recalls. "I drove our station wagon. I was just 14, and God, was I scared."
The following day a shaken Tamara flew East, where she skied her first race for the U.S. Alpine team. Desperately anxious about her sister, who survived but is still recovering, she raced 10 times in only two weeks but frequently broke down in tears. "It was the first time I ever doubted becoming a ski racer," McKinney said later. "I just wanted it to be over with."
Instead, she served her apprenticeship and fought her way up through the ranks of the world's top Alpine skiers. This month Tamara McKinney got her reward. Concluding a stunning week of six slashing giant slalom runs at Waterville Valley, N.H. and Vail, Colo., she won three consecutive races and all but assured herself of becoming the first American woman to capture the World Cup, symbol of international racing supremacy. "Winning it means a lot," says Tamara, "because I was working toward a goal that I once thought was impossible."
A small-boned 5'4", McKinney has not been a successful downhill racer, but on the slalom and giant slalom courses she displays a devastating combination of power and grace. "She doesn't have to work as hard as some people on the snow," says U.S. women's head coach Michel Rudigoz. "She doesn't muscle through the turns. She's fluid and a beautiful, free skier." The only thing that held Tamara back earlier this year was the fact that she was pushing too hard, particularly after a midseason injury to teammate Chris-tin Cooper convinced her she had to carry U.S. hopes on her own.
McKinney is no sudden phenomenon. Her career began at 9 months, when her mother, Frances, first propped her on a pair of miniature skis. A year later she won her first medal, and at age 5 she began training six hours a day with an Austrian coach. For the past five years she has been on the road almost nonstop, living out of a suitcase and rising at dawn to get to the slopes. But not even the numbing routine can make her forget the pure pleasure of racing. "There's something special when you fly through one part of the course and don't even see the next gate," she says. "You have to react. You almost forget the technical jargon you learned in the training sessions."
In the McKinney clan, the skiing instinct runs in the blood. At home in Squaw Valley, Calif., Tamara has an ancient photograph of her maternal grandmother leaping off a ski jump in a long black dress. Frances McKinney went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that her seven children would be passionate skiers. While Tamara's father, Rigan, a former steeplechase jockey, remained on the family horse farm in Lexington, Ky., Frances took her brood (four of them the offspring of an earlier marriage) out West in search of snow. Their wanderings precluded school. Instead, Frances taught them herself, using the same Calvert School home improvement courses she had taken as a child in rural Maryland.
Her obsessiveness clearly has paid off—four of Tamara's siblings have skied competitively at the national level—but not without creating some tensions. While Rigan, 75, is confined to a nursing home after a stroke, his daughter from a previous marriage is suing him and the family, claiming she is entitled to part of the money he spent on his other children, including Tamara. As for Tamara, who reportedly earns $100,000 a year under the Byzantine rules of amateurism that govern her sport, she knows the life she leads exacts certain penalties. "Skiing takes away time from friends and family," she says. "When I have the chance, I want to go back to school, take art and race my horse, Vipit, in Lexington. It's hard to find time for myself when I'm skiing, and with our schedule it's hard to relax. You have to have inner strength to keep your sanity, there are so many expectations and things on the line."