AS A KID, DONNA WEINBRECHT DIDN'T SEEM EIRE THE SORT who would ever be the best at anything. In school she sat at the back of the class; in athletics she was outdone by her brother and sister. But Donna, shy and quiet though she was, had something they didn't have—a fiercely competitive nature. It first became obvious in the hockey games on the lake outside the family house in West Milford, N.J., where she showed the boys no mercy. "I used to crush 'em," says Donna, 26. When they retaliated, she'd go inside for repairs. "I'd be like, 'Ma, get a Band-Aid quick. They're going to start without me!' "
They're not likely to start this year's Olympics without Donna—at least not the wild-and-woolly event known as mogul skiing. The former tomboy hockey player from New Jersey has fashioned herself into the best female mogul skier in the world. She has won the overall World Cup title two years running and so far this season has crushed 'em in four World Cup competitions.
A new Olympic event, mogul skiing is a mix of slalom and gymnastics, brought to boil on a sea of frozen humps—the moguls themselves. Competitors are judged on their speed, turns and jumps—the latter mogul-launched and embellished with splits and twists. "Donna's jumps are clean," says Park Smalley, her former coach. "Her discipline is the reason for her success."
One reason, anyway. Another is her parents, Caroline and Jim Weinbrecht. "My mom is the pusher, the striver who tells me to get up and get out there when I'm lazy," says Donna. "My dad makes you believe." In 1981 Jim, a construction worker, built the family a weekend home in Killington, Vt., largely from wood, windows and other materials discarded by others. "He always wanted to build that house," says Donna, "and he finally did it."
Donna graduated from West Milford High School in 1983 and enrolled at the Ridgewood (N.J.) School of Art and Design. After the school closed in 1985, she moved to Killington and waitressed. But it was only when Caroline started nudging her about getting on with her life that she decided to give mogul skiing—which along with the other freestyle events of ballet and aerials received official recognition in 1979—a serious tumble. Soon she was outdoing Killington's most accomplished hotdoggers. "I competed at a lot of Eastern meets," she says, "but I was told I couldn't compete at the Eastern regional because I didn't have a coach." Nevertheless, Donna qualified to compete in her first World Cup event in Tignes, France, in 1987, and it was there that she hooked up with Park Smalley. Smalley immediately recognized her talent. "She made the national team her first year," says Smalley. "Everyone was like, 'Who is this girl?' "
In 1988 Donna was voted Rookie of the Year on the World Cup circuit. The following year she missed winning the overall title by one point, finishing second to France's Raphaelle Monod, who should be her principal competition at this year's Olympics. She had doubts, however, about sticking with the sport, which kept her in Europe for most of its four-month season. "Donna's a real homebody," says Caroline, "and she'd miss us a lot. I'd always tell her she could get on a plane and come back if she wasn't happy. She never did it."
By 1990 Donna owned the sport. She won eight World Cup events in a row and started training with the men on the U.S. team. "I hang around men a lot, probably because I'm still a tomboy," she says. But with all her travel, a steady beau has been hard to find, apparently a sore point. "Don't worry, I waited 25 years to find my man," says Caroline. "But, Mom," replies Donna, "I'm 26!"
She harbors no such anxieties about her skiing. "I always knew I'd get to the Olympics someday," says Donna, recalling her childhood dreams. Although she would like to become a fashion designer, she plans to stick with moguling another couple of years. "Not everyone has the chance to do this—to be a groundbreaker for a sport you love," says Donna. "I'm going to dance while I can."
BRIAN CAZENEUVE in West Milford
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine