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  Unheralded Tommy Moe Races to First U.S. Medal

By Angus Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 1994; Page A1

 Tommy Moe's surprise gold in the downhill brought the United States its first medal of the XVII Winter Games on the first full day of competition. (AP Photo)
LILLEHAMMER, Norway, Feb. 13 — U.S. skier Tommy Moe today seized the downhill gold medal, the top glamour prize of the Winter Olympics, with a nerveless run down the icy slopes of Kvitfjell.

It was the first time in a decade and only the second in Olympic history that an American won the coveted downhill gold.

The 23-year-old Alaskan sped down the steep, two-mile-long, sunlit Olympic course in a style just reckless enough to forge his first win in world competition.

When Moe climbed the medal stand tonight he stood redeemed after a rocky adolescence. He was dismissed from the national junior team at 13 for smoking marijuana and put on team probation at 16. But that was all just childhood "experimentation," said Moe.

His time of 1 minute 45.75 seconds — four-hundredths of a second faster than Norwegian silver medalist Kjetil Andre Aamodt — brought the United States its first medal of the XVII Winter Games on the first full day of competition.

The day's other gold medals went to Johann Olav Koss of Norway in men's 5,000-meter speed skating, and Italy's Manuela Di Centa in 15-kilometer cross-country skiing. Koss — called "The Boss" in Norway — set a world record and gave the host country some consolation after Aamodt just missed in the downhill.

The U.S. hockey team, meanwhile, scored two late goals to salvage a 4-4 tie with lightly regarded France. A loss by the Americans would have made it difficult for them to advance to medal play.

And American luger Duncan Kennedy — beaten in an attack by neo-Nazi skinheads in Germany two months ago — was fourth after two runs and should challenge for a bronze medal in Monday's final two runs.

Moe's first win on the world stage couldn't have come at a better time. The Olympic downhill "is the biggest thing in skiing," said U.S. alpine coach Paul Major. "Tommy's the best skier in the world."

But not by much. The American was just a half-ski-length faster than the smooth-sliding home-town favorite Aamodt, whom he followed to the starting gate.

Both had waited nervously on the frosty mountaintop for the course to be cleared after Canadian Cary Mullen skittered off a turn and into the safety netting halfway down.

Aamodt, who stamped his boots and donned a blanket for warmth, was asked later if the delay rattled him at all. "Oh," he chuckled, scratching his chin sagely, "I don't think I lost more than five-hundredths of a second because of it."

Indeed, after his splendid run, thousands of flag-waving Norwegians in the crowd of 30,000 at the base of the run were confident they had the winner. Aamodt's time was the best of the day at that juncture by a full three-tenths of a second.

Their cheers were still echoing when Moe poled out of the gate into brilliant, chilly sunshine, and they grew louder when the American's first split-time popped up on the scoreboard. Moe was 20-hundredths of a second slower than Aamodt on the tricky, steep turns at the top.

But the Alaskan, who runs wild whitewater rivers in kayaks when he isn't training for the slopes, had speed and courage left in the bank. "The split times showed me fourth after the top, but I carried good speed onto the flats after the jumps," he said.

At one point he seemed on the verge of skidding out of control and caught a ski edge midway down but recovered. And Moe conceded that "on the last jump I went at it too hard. I landed at the very bottom [of the landing area] and I thought, 'There's no way you're going to pull this off.' "

But pull it off he did as his parents, who had barely arrived in time to see, danced circles on the sidelines. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Summer Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner came to applaud too, but arrived 40 minutes too late, stuck in traffic. President Clinton missed Moe's performance as well, but telephoned his congratulations from a limousine on his way to a golf outing in Hot Springs, Ark. "I told him America is proud of him," Clinton said.

Moe's father, Tom, a building contractor in the Alaskan outback, said he and his wife, Tyra, spent 46 hours en route to Norway after air traffic was routed out of New York because of bad weather. They got into Lillehammer at 9:30 Saturday night and had to force their way onto a bus for the 30-mile trip north to the slopes this morning.

The senior Moe, a barrel-chested, chisel-chinned former smoke-jumper who fought Alaska forest fires for a living before taking up construction in the sub-arctic, arrived at the mountain just two minutes before No. 1 starter Marc Girardelli left the gate.

The elder Moe said he had a lot riding on his son. He'd dragged young Tommy to the Aleutian Islands to help him build steel structures in the boy's 16th summer. They worked in a town called Dutch Harbor, which the elder Moe said was "right close to hell."

At the end of that hard season, faced with a choice, his son decided, "I can work construction with my old man or I can do what I like and go skiing," said the elder Moe.

He picked skiing and today, as Moe swept to the bottom of his finest run in a spray of snow, he fixed an eye on the timer and saw the unexpected grand result.

"When I saw I was number one, I was surprised," he said. "Usually when I look up there it's two or three, even 10."

Moe in fact has visited the medal podium only twice this season on the World Cup tour, both times for bronze medals, once for downhill and once in Super G. But Kvitfjell, a classic downhill course that rewards both technical skiing and the ability to glide, was right for him, he said.

Moe, whose gold was worth a $15,000 prize from the U.S. Olympic Committee, had excellent practice runs this week, with the fourth-best time in the final trial run Saturday. Major, his coach, said the whole team carried high expectations for him. "We were confident with the way he skied, with the weather, with everything. There were a lot of smiles last night."

Moe's is the first medal for a U.S. downhiller since Bill Johnson won at Sarajevo in 1984, but Johnson's triumph was considered a bit of a fluke. The Yugoslavian course was custom-made for Johnson, say skiing experts, rewarding his unique ability to glide.

Kvitfjell, said Moe's teammate AJ Kitt, is one of the most challenging and diverse downhill courses on the world tour, second only by his reckoning to the famous run at Kitzbuehel, Austria.

Kitt wound up deep in the pack at 17th today; U.S. Olympic newcomer Kyle Rasmussen finished a creditable 11th. The bronze medal went to Canadian Ed Podivinsky, who finished in 1:45.87.

Moe has the chance to add more lucre to today's medal haul in the Super G and combined events. The combined plays out over two days, and is a combination of times from one downhill run and one slalom run. The downhill half is Monday at Kvitfjell, but overall winners won't be decided until the slalom half of the two-edged event runs Feb. 25 at a tamer course at Hafjell.

The men's Super G is Thursday, and Moe is a strong contender.

Amid his celebrating, Moe seized the chance today to lash back at critics who ridiculed the U.S. men's ski team before the Olympics. Sports Illustrated dubbed the men's skiers the lead-footed snow plow brigade, he said, "but none of it is true. We work hard and we don't deserve to be ridiculed."

"I read that and it stoked my fire," said Moe. "Under my picture they said, 'Moe is no great success story.' Maybe they should write another story next week."

Now, of course, they will.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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