U.S. Alpine Racers Are Prospecting for Gold in the Snow

updated 02/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Her family calls her "Runt," but it's clearly a term of endearment for Tamara McKinney, the Smurf-size U.S. slalom and giant slalom specialist who is America's best and brightest hope for an Alpine skiing gold medal at the Sarajevo Olympic Games. At 21, the 5'3" ("on tall days"), 117-pound McKinney may be less imposing physically than most of her teammates, but what she lacks in huskiness she makes up for in strength. Witness the time outside the chic French resort town of Mégève recently when McKinney offered a companion a piggyback ride from the peak of 6,000-ft. Mont d'Arbois. "Hop on," she urged her 5'7", 130-pound female passenger, then cheerfully skied off down the slopes. "There's Mont Blanc," said Tamara, playing tour guide as pine trees fled past. "Are you frightened?" "Not at all," replied her cargo, and the reason was obvious. McKinney maneuvers better on skis than most of us could hope to in sneakers.

With the Olympics closing in, and the pressures mounting, Tamara has come to cherish these rare moments of freedom. "There are days when you ski down the snow, you drift around and see all the mountains and realize this is a special thing we do," explains McKinney, who last year became the first American woman to win the overall World Cup title. (Phil Mahre of the U.S. has captured the men's version of the Cup the last three years.) "When I'm skiing, no one can talk to me. When it all comes together, it's really special."

After a disappointing start on the international circuit this winter, the U.S. men and women skiers hope to get their act together as the Olympics open in Yugoslavia this week. Mahre and his twin brother, Steve, 26, both could take medals, though their sport is dominated by Europeans. Among the women, all eyes are on McKinney, in her sixth year on the U.S. team, and her exuberant teammate Christin Cooper, 24, a slalom and giant-slalom star from Sun Valley, Idaho.

Phil Mahre was the last American Olympic medalist, earning a silver in the slalom at Lake Placid four years ago. Cindy Nelson won the last medal awarded an American woman—the bronze in the downhill at Innsbruck in 1976. Nelson, however, suffered a setback in December when she tore ligaments in her right knee in a race at Val-d'lsère, France. Although she will compete in Sarajevo, she may not be able to do much more than lend moral support. Whatever happens, the journey to Sarajevo will be a sentimental one for her. The 28-year-old Lutsen, Minn. native is retiring from racing after the Olympics.

Despite the competitive pressures, the U.S. women, gearing up in France for Sarajevo, resemble a family as much as a team. "We train, sleep, eat and travel together," says Coop, as her teammates call her. "We're together in everything except that one minute on the course." During the unforgiving World Cup grind, a grueling schedule of 30 races spread over five months and three continents, all 10 skiers, in fact, have become each other's cheerleaders, best friends and confidantes. They shield each other from outsiders and work hard to dissipate the tension that builds around the team during an Olympic year. Observes Cooper: "You just can't over-hype. We could walk out of Sarajevo with nothing, and we've got to be prepared for that."

On an ordinary practice day recently, the women rose at 8:30, breakfasted together, skied for four hours, ate lunch, rested and then stayed loose with extracurricular pastimes like touch football and skating. There were also team meetings and group screenings of their own videotaped downhill races. By 10 p.m. it was lights out. While Cooper is fairly bursting with all-American pep ("Tamara often just looks at me and says, 'Will you mellow out!' "), McKinney is soft-spoken and solemn. The unofficial bard of the team, she composes birthday poems for her adopted friends. When she's blue, she'll sit making charcoal and pencil sketches. It is her artistry on skis, though, on which her remarkable reputation depends.

In a sport featuring spine-bending turns and split-second escapes from the grip of disaster, McKinney practically floats down the mountainside. "Her skis kiss the snow," says a coach. It is the grace of a child who grew up on the slopes. "I had skis on my feet before I could walk," says Tamara, the youngest of seven children. "My family strapped them on and toddled me around." Born in Lexington, Ky. to Hall of Fame steeplechase-jockey Rigan McKinney and his wife, Frances, a ski instructor, Tamara was raised on a horse farm but wintered at the family's Washoe Pines, Nev. retreat. Three of her siblings preceded her on the U.S. ski team: Steve, her half brother and one of the world's leading speed skiers, McLane and Sheila. An athletic phenomenon, Sheila made the national C team at 12 and was skiing in international competition at 13. When she was 18, however, a near-fatal crash during a downhill race left her unconscious for three weeks. She later gave up skiing and now works on the family's horse farm. Though the accident frightened Tamara, she is confident her own skills won't betray her. "I just have to trust my body to do what it knows how to do—what it's been trained to do so many thousands of times before," she says. Like the great Austrian downhiller, Franz Klammer, Tamara has learned to take nothing for granted. "Klammer says, 'Sure I hope, but I can't expect,' " she explains. "That's how I feel."

Nine hundred miles from the U.S. women's encampment in France, coaches and staff of the men's ski team stand at the hotel bar of a 13th-century converted castle in the Tyrolean ski resort of Kitzbühel, Austria, knocking back icy thimbles of schnapps chased by long draughts of amber beer. Inevitably, the talk drifts to Steve and Phil Mahre. Someone, that very evening, has seen World Cup champ Phil downing a couple of schnapps of his own. While most trainers ride shotgun on the liquor cabinet at competition time, team trainer Gene Hagerman isn't disturbed by Mahre's indulgence. "It's good for him," Hagerman tells his buddies. Well, something is needed to pull the Mahres out of their skiing doldrums. On the eve of the Olympics, Phil and Steve, ranked 24th and 53rd respectively in this season's World Cup standings, may be suffering from a severe case of burnout. Both Mahres are competing in their third Olympics. "I've probably hung around longer than I should have," concedes Phil. "The concentration, the getting excited about the circuit, it's no longer there." So why is he here? "I'm not in this sport for my dad, my coach or my country," he says bluntly. "I'm in it for myself."

Yet neither Phil nor Steve is likely to qualify as the circuit's lone wolf. Both are dedicated family men and, true to their twinship, each has a small daughter and a pregnant wife. Steve's spouse, Debbie, cares for 26-month-old Ginger and travels hotel to hotel with her Mahre, while Phil's wife, Holly, is due to deliver this month and is staying in Arizona with her parents and daughter Lindsey, 17 months. Phil has Lindsey's name painted on his skis, but firmly maintains that "the ski circuit is no place to raise a family."

Family has always defined the twins' lives. Growing up in White Pass, Wash., where their father, Dave, operates a ski resort, the Mahres, who have eight brothers and sisters, began competing against each other at age 8 and have continued their scrap all the way to the top of the international ladder. Phil has enjoyed greater success, but takes nothing away from Steve's talent. "I was destined to be a ski racer," he says. "Steve didn't decide until a little later."

Team director Bill Marolt is optimistic that the Mahres will break out of their slumps once the Olympic flame has been lit. And who knows? Whether the Mahres come barreling down the slopes at Sarajevo hell-bent on beating each other, the clock or the mountain, they have long since established twin reputations for world-class consistency. "My life doesn't depend on winning a gold medal," says Phil. "It's not a do-or-die situation. But I do want to be competitive."

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