Members of the U.S. Olympic ski team have torn anterior cruciates, wrecked medial collaterals and cracked fibulas. In the last month alone, one U.S. downhiller slammed into a rescue toboggan, another crashed into a Soviet coach. If Sarajevo was a charmed place in 1984, then these are perilous, hexed times for U.S. skiers.
A total of nine prospective Olympic skiers (six women and three men) have suffered injuries since the season began, which means the U.S. team will not march into the Winter Olympics in Calgary so much as hobble. Under the circumstances, all that is hoped for is a modicum of health and respectability. Medals are not to be expected or demanded, unless team orthopedic surgeon Dr. Richard Steadman receives one in the giant scalpel.
In 1984, the ski team captured five of the total eight U.S. medals with a stunning performance on the slopes of Sarajevo. But among those who have broken, torn or just plain hurt something this year are defending Olympic giant slalom gold medalist Debbie Armstrong, slalom specialist Tamara McKinney, and Olympic downhill gold medalist Bill Johnson, who was so slowed by injuries that he did not make the team.
"We have simply never had such a bad seasonal start," women's team spokesman Nick Howe said recently from the World Cup circuit. "We seem to have been cursed."
The result is that only a few recognized names are on the team going to Calgary, led by the perennially ailing Armstrong and McKinney. Over the World Cup season, the best the United States could do was a pair of seventh-place finishes, one for men's slalom racer Felix McGrath of Norwich, Vt., and one for women's slalom racer 21-year-old Edith Thys of Squaw Valley, Calif., who began on the lowly C team. Otherwise, it will consist of unknowns who, although talented, are mainly considered good prospects for the future.
Originally the women's Alpine team was considered strong in medal possibilities, but just two skiers from the A and B squads that started this season's World Cup circuit remain healthy. They are 25-year-old veteran Pam Fletcher of Acton, Mass., who will ski the downhill and Super G, and downhill newcomer Hilary Lindh of Juneau, Alaska.
"What we have now is a group of very young, very talented, but still inexperienced racers," women's slalom coach Martin Rufener said. "It is what you would call a development team. There are some really good skiers on it, but they lack the experience of the Europeans they will be facing."
As skiers fell, so did morale and hopes of being competitive with the dominant Swiss in Calgary.
The bizarre string of events began with Armstrong, who has undergone two knee operations since winning the gold in Sarajevo, and then missed a month of this season when she dislocated a fibula in her left leg. She is back on skis and competing, but is not considered in peak form. Neither is McKinney, who is probably the United States' best overall skier, the fourth-place finisher in the 1984 Olympic giant slalom, and the only American to win an overall World Cup (1983). She cracked a fibula during training in November, then worked out on her own to get ready for Calgary.
Next came slalom specialist Eva Twardokens, who fell 33 seconds into the first World Cup race of the season and tore knee ligaments, putting her out for the season and the Olympics. Tori Pillenger, a 22-year-old comer in the downhill was another devastating loss; she suffered the worst injury in a scary high speed fall in the Super G, tearing up a knee and sustaining severe fractures.
That meant the C team was summoned to Europe. But even before they left, promising Amy Livran of Vail, Colo., broke her leg. Then downhiller Adele Allender of Sun Valley, Idaho careened into the rescue toboggan during a run in Austria and broke her arm, becoming the sixth woman injured.
But the women's team is not totally despairing. The inge'nues created some surprising new optimism by the end of January. Four women (most of them downhillers) earned World Cup points by placing at least once in the top 15. Perhaps the strongest is Fletcher, who won a World Cup downhill in Vail, Colo., in 1986, and who finished 10th in Leukerbad, Switzerland in December and 14th in Bad Gastein, Austria at the end of January.
"It was pretty eerie in December," Fletcher said. "We lost some good friends and that's hard. But in January we got some momentum, and at least there was something consistent."
One advantage of youth is that sometimes it does not know enough to feel pressure. That is what the Americans are hoping. One who earned unexpected World Cup points was Thys, an eager 21-year-old who says she would settle for being a "gatekeeper" in Calgary, and whose seventh place in the Super G in Italy in December was the best of the U.S. season. The U.S. team is also hoping for some surprises from 18-year-old downhiller Lindh.
No one, however, has been as surprising as 18-year-old downhiller Kristin Krone of Truckee, Calif., who began the year on the training team, which is the lowest echelon in the Olympic program. Krone was summoned to Europe out of necessity and was not expected to be heard from, but finished 17th at Bad Gastein to make the Olympics.
"It's exciting to think that you might be able to develop some names," Fletcher said. "That's what Debbie Armstrong did. No one knew who she was, and she was never expected to do anything. So we think we can do the same thing."
The men suffered fewer injuries, but then they began with less, losing 1984 Olympic twin heroes Phil and Steve Mahre to retirement after winning the slalom gold and silver, respectively. Then Johnson underwent major operations on his left knee and back last winter, and hasn't been a factor since.
"We don't have a Mahre or a Bill Johnson, so we're more unpredictable and not as good as '84," said veteran slalom racer Tiger Shaw. "But we've got a lot of young hot skiers, and sometimes favorites slip."
In the slalom events, McGrath, the only American to earn a World Cup slalom point this season, is apparently the only skier who could become a serious challenger. Experience comes in the form of Shaw, a 26-year-old certified pilot and Dartmouth grad from Burlington, Vt., who is a six-year veteran of the national team. But he had ligaments repaired in his left knee last summer, and sat out part of December.
"The way you deal with this is by knowing that if you have a great day and the favorites have only a fair one, we can slide in there," he said. "All it takes is two runs on one good day."