Rhapsody in White
From Nike Is a Goddess (Atlantic Monthly Press)
By Jean Weiss
At the 1998 Olympics held in Nagano, Japan, Picabo Street ripped through the course of the Super G to win a gold medal by 1/100 of a second, a margin as thin as the hot-melon-colored suit she was wearing. The victory was stunning: not just because of Street’s celebrity, or because the Super G is usually her weakest event, or because it’s rare for an athlete to remain a top-level competitor after destroying her knee as Street had done only a year earlier. The victory was important because it showed how far American women’s skiing had come. As Street stood on the podium to collect her medal, radiating all the fresh-scrubbed confidence you’d expect from a young woman who believes in past lives and auras and her inalienable right to excel, she earmarked the progress from a time when American women were competitors but not competitive to now, when they are first-place contenders. From the original American Olympic women’s ski squad in 1936, when the well-bred Elizabeth Woolsey bested her teammates to place only fourteenth among the international lineup, to this: sixties love child Street gathering up her gold medallion. It was clear that in the United States, women’s skiing had come a long way.
It took six decades, the span of time between Woolsey and Street, for American women to prove their worth as international competitors. The first mark of progress came in 1948 when Gretchen Fraser ended European dominance over Alpine skiing as the first American skier to win an Olympic medal. In the late 1960s, Suzy Chaffee led the women into the spotlight again when she abandoned Alpine in favor of the then relatively unknown form of skiing called freestyle. Thanks in large part to Chaffee, freestyle is now an established international event. A third leap occurred during the 1980s when Tamara McKinney proved to the world that a woman could dominate a sport for more than a few seasons. In her decade-long reign, McKinney won eighteen World Cup races. Then came Picabo Street, the magnetic young women who captured our hearts while capturing her gold. With flair and bravado, Street took us into the 1990s, establishing not only that American women could win, but that they could become wealthy and famous, too.
Yet Alpine and freestyle, arguably the most popular and visible forms of the sport, are only two strands in the rich history of American women’s skiing. The deeply rooted Nordic and the renegade black sheep snowboarding also claim a stake. Though the journey has been less well documented, Nordic and snowboarding have changed dramatically for American women, especially over the past two decades. As snowboarding grows in popularity, some Alpine skiers are trading in their gear for the fat boards. Snowboarder Sondra Van Ert is a classic example of the trend. She left the U.S. ski team in the mid-eighties only to resurface ten years later as a world champion and Olympian of snowboarding. In her own way, Nordic racer Nina Kemppel sets a similar example for where American women stand as cross-country competitors. Kemppel continues a quiet rule over her U.S. contemporaries while falling far behind her European competitors.
There’s a saying among ski bums that’s offensive but honest. It goes something like this: I may sleep with you tonight, but don’t count on me to ski with you tomorrow. This same fraternity has a second creed that sounds just as ludicrous: Skiing powder is better than sex. Ludicrous, that is, to everyone except those who’ve skied deep powder.
Skiing can become an obsession. To anyone who’s lived in a ski town, this fact is painfully obvious. Talk of skiing dominates cocktail parties, newspaper sports pages, grocery store lines. Every season a new crop of freshly educated college grads trades its high-powered aspirations for waiting tables and a free ski pass. Sometimes they stay a few seasons. Sometimes they stay the rest of their lives. Middle-income families endure the financial hardships of an inflated ski town economy just so they can log forty days each season on the mountain. Some skiers never get enough. Why? Because, quite simply, skiing is like flying. There’s the rush of gravity, a sense of weightlessness, a crescendo of speed and power that lifts one up and knocks one down. There’s an appealing element of danger. Just enough to feel as if every limit has been pushed. The slopes are precipitous, the visibility next to nothing. The chair, the gondola, or the tram could break down at any moment. It’s a reasonable risk to take, but a risk nonetheless. One could lose control skiing on the mountain and crash into the hill, another skier, or, worse, a tree. People die skiing, though more often they break a leg or rip a ligament in their knee. Skiing requires split-second decisions about direction and terrain and style of turns. Moment to moment every skier is a hairbreadth away from success or failure. This is the appeal of Alpine and freestyle skiing—fast pace, dramatic decisions, speed, and varied terrain.
Skiing doesn’t have to be difficult. Some people take it moderate and slow. They show up late to the ski hill, cruise all day on groomed slopes, check into the lodge for hot chocolate or to sit and read by the fire, then call it an early day. On any given ski mountain, there are choices of terrain. There are ungroomed powder slopes, slopes that have been sculpted all night by snowcat operators to make skiing easier, and bump runs that have been carved out and shaped by the tight turns of the skiers who have come before. Each section of a ski mountain is graded according to the level of difficulty. Green circles mark the easier way down a mountain; blue squares flag intermediate slopes; black diamonds indicate advanced terrain; double black diamonds are for extreme skiers only. While ski areas throughout the country subscribe to the same gradation of difficulty, the similarities stop there. One may find powder or icy terrain anywhere. There are exceptions, but a few generalizations are fair. Anyone who grew up skiing on the West Coast can attest to the fact that conditions tend to be deep, heavy snow on steep slopes, which packs out. Ski areas on the East Coast aren’t as steep and tend to get less snow; they are renowned for their often icy conditions. The most extreme terrain and best, light-as-air powder is found in ski areas from Montana to New Mexico, along the Rocky Mountain range.
Skiing outside of resorts is another fun way to experience the sport. A growing number of people prefer to work up a sweat using Nordic’s smooth, steady kick-and-glide, or skating, techniques. Cross-country skiing is easy to learn. It’s also considered one of the best all-body muscular and cardiovascular workouts there is. Then there’s backcountry skiing. Snowboarders, telemarkers and Alpine skiers know that trudging with friends to the top of a mountain for a few hard-earned first tracks is even more satisfying than taking in the panoramic views at the top of every chairlift.
To be a good skier, to really make it past the intermediate stage, requires an aggressive attitude. To be a ski racer, it takes more. Starting at a young age is an invaluable advantage. For alpine skiers, a low center of gravity and strong thighs lend an edge. For Nordic, endurance is the key. Freestyle skiers must be quick and agile. They also need to have rhythm. A commitment to a ski team and instruction for the best coaches are required. In the end, though, it’s a mental game. If a skier doesn’t have it in her head that she’s going to win, she won’t.
Skiing isn’t just about competition and thrill-seeking adventure. The sport was born from necessity. Prehistoric hunters used splintered logs to slide over snow-covered slopes while searching for prey. Rock carvings found in Russia dating back to 6000 B.C. show images of skis. The oldest pair of skis, now displayed in a Stockholm museum, dates to 3000 B.C. Written accounts from China and Scandinavia dating back five thousand years confirm the use of skis during war and the first informal ski competitions. The first recorded mention of women skiing is the ancient northern European myth of the goddess Skadi, a bow hunter who searched for game while gliding downhill on cross-country skis. Even the origins of modern skiing can be traced to Europe. The Norwegians developed the cross-country style known as Nordic mainly for transportations. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that skiing began to grow in popularity not just as a mode of transportation, but also as a sport. Gradually, skiers around the world adapted the sport to their terrain, developing different ski techniques. The Norwegians were accustomed to sloping, open countryside. The forested mountains of the Alps proved more complicated. It was necessary to develop the Alpine method and the technique called the Arlberg Crouch. Nineteenth-century Austrian ski instructors Mathias Zdarsky, Georg Bilgeri, and Hannes Schneider experimented with the Arlberg Technique, which required a lift and swing of the body while bending the knees. This allowed skiers to safely navigate down steeps through trees. This style bred slalom, skiing through a series of gates, and downhill, high-speed skiing down a course. While Nordic continued to develop more quietly along solitary tracks in the backcountry, Alpine became fashionable. Fast, glamorous, and modern, Alpine was the centerpiece for winter tourism to posh ski resorts in the Swiss Alps, in Germany’s Bavarian Alps, and in Austria’s St. Anton and Innsbruck resorts. Skiers took to the slopes on large, heavy wooden skis and flimsy, leather lace-up boots, getting up the mountains on rope tows and T-bars. Because it required expensive travel, the sports first enthusiasts were largely from the ranks of the privileged. Nonetheless, by the early part of the twentieth century, the sport was beginning to catch on with a broader population, and competition was the next natural step.
Skiing was a competitive sport for men as early as 1879, through ski jumping events held by Norwegian military. Women skiers were four decades behind, competing for the first time during the 1920s. Racing through clubs and on college-sponsored teams, American women were quick to catch up with their male counterparts. Clad in tailored wool ski pants that fit neatly inside their low-cut leather lace-up boots, they sported Tyrolean-style sweaters and jackets, flapper hats, ankle socks, and heavy wooden skis with cable bindings. Club racing brought recognition, credibility, and a place to experience racing to American’s women skiers during this crucial decade, when Americans were beginning to compete with the rest of the world.
In 1924, the first winter Olympics was held in Chamonix, France, but the only venue allowed for women was figure skating, in which eleven-year-old Sonja Henie made her debut. This was a disappointment to women skiers, who looked hopefully toward the next Olympics for the chance to compete. One week after the 1924 Games, the International Ski Federation was founded, a governing organization that lent credibility to skiing. The World Ski Championships new official status paved the way for skiing’s inclusion in the Olympics.
The next step came in 1931 when the International Ski Federation designated downhill and slalom as the two sanctioned events in international competition for men and women. Giant slalom, which is skiing between wider gates placed farther apart, was experimented with as early as 1935, though not sanctioned until 1972. (The Super G, a similar downhill race with gates, was accepted into competition even later, in 1987.)
Clubs, nationals, international championships: this was the women’s race circuit until 1935. Then in 1936 women athletes—including Alpine and Nordic skiers—were invited to compete in the Olympics. But the United States had yet to form a women’s Olympic team. Roland Palmedo, president of the Amateur Ski Club of New York, raised funds to partially finance the team and gave the task of selecting the racers to Mrs. Alice Damrosch Wolfe, herself a skier with experience managing women’s teams in clubs throughout the United States. The selection process was informal, drawing from winners of the few women’s competitions like the nationals and internationals and relying on word of mouth.
“In the summer of 1935 I wrote all the girls who had been on the 1935 International Ski Federation team plus the three best racers in the National championships at Mount Rainier, plus any other girl skiers I had heard of who seemed to be good enough to justify their training on an Olympic Squad,” Wolfe recounts in the American Olympics Committee’s account of the 1936 games. Wolfe’s invitations sparked a flurry of early arrivals to train at St. Anton in the Austrian Alps, where the team was to be selected. The young women received financial assistance from money raised by Palmedo but primarily funded their own chance to try for the team. The official time to report was January 2, but most of the women showed up in early December. “I think all those girls thought about was training and getting into condition to make the team,” writes Wolfe.
Eight women were selected for the American team and went on to Garmisch in Partenkirchen, Germany, a week and a half before the 1936 Olympics. Hotel bookings were tight as athletes assembled for the games, and the U.S. girls’ team was housed in a tiny pension along with the German girls’ team. Days later, Elizabeth “Betty” Woolsey, Clarita Heath, Helen Boughton-Leigh, and Mary Bird were the four Americans chosen to compete. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm and intense preparation proved inadequate when pitted against Europeans, who benefited from a long tradition of skiing.
Europe was the epicenter of skiing, and European men and women were skiing’s top competitors until after World War II. Not only was Europe the primary resort area; it was the place where the most innovative equipment was developed and instruction progressed. From that solid cultural base, European skiers were obviously going to be far superior to their American counterparts.
Betty Woolsey, the first among the American women, placed fourteenth in the downhill and nineteenth in the combined downhill and slalom. She ranked behind Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Great Britain, Italy, Austria, Holland, and Canada. Norway’s Lail Schou-Nilsen won the downhill, taking third in the combined. Winning a majority of races, the German women dominated. In the combined event, Germans Christel Cranz placed first, Kathe Grazegger second, Hadi Pfeifer fifth, and Lisa Resch sixth. One can only imagine the Americans disappointment laid bare before the Germans in that tiny pension on the evenings following each race. The pairing had been inauspicious. Four years later, the 1940 Olympic games were canceled because of World War II. The American skiers who had qualified for the Olympic team would have to wait.
At the onset of World War II, military forces around the world, from the United States to Russia, used skiing as a military tactic. Finland soldiers on skis led the way by defending their country against the Germans at the start of the war. The United States took note and recruited its best Alpine skiers for training in the 10th Mountain Division. Women’s international skiing competition virtually halted. Resources were limited, and everyone was preoccupied with the war effort. Yet though competition suffered, the sport as a whole benefited from techniques and equipment developed by the military. After the war, those innovations were used to enhance recreational and competitive skiing. Improvements to over-the-snow transportation and cable-lift construction and the use of metal and alloy materials to construct chair lifts and rope tows made skiing easier and more fun. Wooden skis were replaced by faster lightweight metal skis, designed specifically for downhill and slalom. Lightweight synthetics like nylon replaced cotton and wool clothing. The public had access to flight, and travel to resorts became less expensive and available to the middle class. Skiing was no longer the domain of the wealthy.
Straddling this era of the transition was the remarkable career of girlish, Cheshire-grinned Gretchen Fraser, who would be the first American to win an Olympic medal in skiing. Fraser was born in Tacoma, Washington, and learned to ski at her family-owned ski resort, Paradise Valley, one of three resorts on Mount Rainer that later consolidated into what is now Crystal Mountain. Fraser’s parents were both from Europe: her Norwegian mother immigrated to the United States when she was twenty, her German father when he was twenty-two. The couple instilled their love of skiing in their daughter, a natural athlete, who also played golf and tennis, rode horses, and flew airplanes. Eager for a challenge, Fraser became adept at maneuvering a twin-engine Cessna, single- and multi-engines, seaplanes, and instrument-rating aircrafts. She also mastered the business of flying twin-engine aircraft and the Army jet trainer T-33, in which she won two air races.
In 1936 Fraser met and married ski racer Don Fraser and moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, where in 1940 they were named to the U.S. ski team. When Olympic competition halted because of the war, Fraser raced in national competitions, capturing the U.S. national downhill and Alpine combined championships in 1941 and winning the U.S. national slalom in 1942. Feeling as if she had nothing further to master, she retired and taught skiing, riding, and swimming to war amputees while her husband served in the U.S. navy. When the war ended, Fraser’s husband prodded her back into racing, convincing her, then twenty-nine, to attempt to qualify for the 1948 Olympics, to be held in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
With the war over, the Olympics drew audiences looking for celebration and sport. Fraser’s twelve-year bid for the Olympics (she’d been a hopeful since 1936), paired with her age, old even by the competition standards of the time, made her a crowd favorite. She did not let them down. She stunned the world, who had yet to see an American, let alone an American woman, do well in international competition. She took second in the Alpine combined, a double race event no longer a part of racing. Her silver medal victory was the first medal won by an American skier.
Fraser responded to her victory with the declaration that she would take home a second medal by also winning in slalom. To do so, she had to beat Austrian Erika Mahringer, Europe’s top-ranking female skier, who had beaten her in the Alpine combined on the first of two runs. At the second go-around, Fraser held the fastest time. However, four women, including Mahringer, were within a second of her. As she stood at the starting gate, ready to launch herself down a mountain for her second run, the starter’s race phone went dead. She waited, shivering, for seventeen minutes, while a telephone line linking the top of the course to the bottom of the course was repaired. She nevertheless maintained her poise and concentration, running a perfect, controlled decent to a gold-medal win. Even today, athletes note the form and speed she maintained in spite of gear considered klunky and the debilitating technical difficulties she had waited through. Following the less successful bid of the women’s Olympic squad in 1936, Fraser’s show of force in 1948 became an inspiration for later generations of American skiers.
“I remember seeing pictures of her in Sun Valley,” says eighteen-time World Cup winner Tamara McKinney, who made her mark in the 1980s as one of history’s most accomplished Alpine skiers. “She just had the greatest technique: the good angulation of the knee, the aggressive stance. You could tell she was going for it in this picture. It looked very solid and balanced, and then you looked down and she had on these little short leather boots that would lace up.” Fraser was inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in 1960. She died at seventy-five on the eve of the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, just over a month after the death of her husband of fifty-four years.
Competing alongside Fraser, finished eighth in the slalom, twenty-first in the Alpine combined, and thirty-fifth in the downhill, fifteen-year-old Andrea Mead Lawrence had her first taste of the intensity of international competition. Lawrence had been skiing since she was three at the ski area her parents ran in Pico Peak, Vermont. She debuted in the 1948 Olympics as the team’s youngest member. By 1950, the intelligent well-spoken Lawrence had matured as an athlete under the tutelage of a Swiss ski instructor who worked at her parents’ resort. She finished first in downhill, slalom, and combined at U.S. nationals. A year later, she placed first in ten international competitions in a circuit that later became known as the World Cup.
By the time she arrived at the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, Norway, Lawrence had established herself as a champion, a reputation that she proved yet again. She won a first gold medal in giant slalom by an impressive 2.2-second margin. No one was quite prepared, though, for her even more remarkable slalom win. After falling during the first of two runs, she skied the course to a fourth-place finish. For her second run, she knew that if she was going to make it, she had to go for broke. She did, finishing two seconds faster than anyone else, an outstanding margin for slalom. Her combined scores won her another gold, making her the first U.S. skier to win two Olympic golds, a record that still stands. She had a chance for a third gold medal in the downhill race. Her split time was better than the other competitors, but she fell again, this time unable to regain the loss, she finished seventeenth.
With the exception of Fraser and Lawrence, Europeans continued to dominate both men’s and women’s Alpine skiing until Tamara McKinney’s debut in the 1980s. The same was true for Nordic skiing. Northern Europeans, specifically Norwegians, flourished in cross-country skiing competition until the 1990s, when Russian teams began to win. There are three primary competitions in cross-country: the standard distance races of fifteen to fifty kilometers; ski jumping; and the biathlon, a cross-country race with target shooting at intervals, derived from the military ski patrol race.
Excelling in cross-country was a source of intense national pride for the Norwegians. Not only did skiing begin in their country, the Norwegians, who won their independence from Sweden in 1905, viewed cross-country as a way for citizens to develop athletic skills and strong moral character. A Norwegian household without several pairs of skinny skis lined up outside the mudroom was a rare sight. Cross-country was Norway’s equivalent of American’s baseball. It was a common interest around which to rally. Perhaps in response to the European’s enduring command of Alpine and Nordic, and certainly related to the new popularity of recreational skiing on U.S. slopes, Americans turned their focus to freestyle. The newfangled discipline that combined dance, acrobatics, and skiing was the perfect match for America’s less traditional skiing culture. And Suzy Chaffee was the perfect athlete to lead the way.
The first record of freestyle is traced to the nineteenth century in Telemark, Norway, where Nordic skiers had to master a series of techniques that included turning, jumping, and skiing straight downhill at high speeds. During the 1930s, Norwegian ski champions used skiing acrobatics as part of their training and performed acrobatics in skiing exhibitions. Ski instructor Mathias Zdarsky taught simple acrobatics in the European Alps as part of his ski instruction during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1926, Zdarsky’s contemporary, the German medical doctor and figure skater Fritz Reul, wrote a book advocating acrobatics as the future direction for skiing. While acrobatics was accepted by the Europeans as a training enhancer for Alpine and Nordic skiers, they did not consider this style worthy of competition. In contrast, America’s skiing culture was intrigued by the style, which grew out of leisure skiing. The sport debuted in the 1950s, when Stein Ericksen, an Olympic champion and accomplished acrobatic skier from Norway, immigrated to the United States and began showing freestyle at exhibitions. The four areas of freestyle competition are mogul; acroski, formally known as ballet; aerial; and combined.
Freestyle was perfect for Suzy Chaffee, because it paired three disciplines she was experienced in: dance, skiing, and gymnastics. Chaffee was born in 1947 to a father who was a ski jumper and a mother who was an alternate for the 1940 U.S. Alpine Olympic team. Her parents had her on the slopes by the time she was two. Unlike most other skiers, however, she studied classical ballet as well as logging long hours on the mountain. By 1965, when she’d qualified as a member of the U.S. Alpine ski team, she was also an accomplished dancer. In 1967, after she took fourth in downhill at the World Ski Championship held in Portillo, Chile, she was the highest-ranked American woman in Alpine competitions. When the ski team traveled to the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, Chaffee was their captain. Following the winter games, she decided she wanted a new challenge and switched from Alpine to freestyle.
Though fans had always been enamored of the glamour of freestyle, it had taken a decade for the style to receive recognition by the skiing establishment. Freestyle was considered excessively flamboyant. When a few competitors suffered severe spinal cord injuries, the sport’s reputation took another hit—it was now considered dangerous, too. But in 1979 the International Skiing Federation finally acknowledged freestyle, in response to popular demand. Mogul and aerial events were allowed in the Olympics thirteen years later, in 1992. Though it took a while to win over the sports executives, it was much easier to win over audiences. The jumps, flips, and fast mogul maneuvering of freestyle skiing is a spectator favorite, and at its inception, Chaffee was a main draw.
Leggy, attractive, and vivacious, Suzy Chaffee was the perfect person to legitimize freestyle. Because there was no women’s division in the early years of freestyle, she won three consecutive world championships, from 1971 to 1973, competing against the men. She also broke new ground as one of the first freestyle performers to add musical accompaniment to her routines. Though her athletic ability was impressive, in fairness, a good measure of her fame came from publicity off the slopes. She was Suzy Chap Stick, the ski bunny who promoted Chap Stick lip balm, and she also appeared semi-nude in a Town & Country photo spread. These promotional stunts proved that a woman athlete could earn substantial money. Chaffee also was an outspoken advocate of legislation that benefited women. In public appearances she promoted skiing and made it easier for the next generation of women skiers to get attention.
In the 1990s, Donna Weinbrecht became the prominent woman freestyle skier. With a background as a figure skater and Alpine skier, Weinbrecht turned to freestyle in her early twenties, coaching herself for three years. In 1988 she finished first in the U.S. freestyle championship at Stratton Mountain, Vermont, and was named World Cup Rookie of the Year. She also specializes in mogul skiing and reigned as the U.S. champion between 1988 and 1992, winning the world championship in moguls in 1991 and an Olympic gold medal in 1992. Four years later, in 1996, she became the World Cup mogul champion.
At the 1998 Olympics, a third American freestyle skier, aerialist Nikki Stone, came to the fore when she won a gold medal, a feat made more remarkable by the fact that two years earlier she’d just been told that a back injury would keep her from ever skiing again.
European women continued to dominate Alpine throughout the 1970s. Many people consider Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell the best skier of that decade, although she didn’t win an Olympic gold medal until 1980. The best American women skiers were Kiki Cutter, who in 1969 became the first American skier to win a World Cup title; Cindy Nelson, who in 1974 became the first U.S. skier to win a World Cup downhill title; and Barbara Ann Cochran, who won a gold medal in slalom at the 1972 Olympics. West Germany’s Rosi Mittermeier, who in 1976 won Olympic golds in downhill and slalom, won a silver in giant slalom, and became the World Cup overall champion, was another force to be reckoned with.
Annemarie Moser-Proell began skiing at age four on a pair of hand-made skis carved by her father. At five feet, six inches, and 150 pounds, she was a strong, solid competitor. Between 1971 and 1975, she was the overall World Cup champion, a title no other woman has won more than twice. In the same five-year period, she competed in thirty-three downhill races, placing first twenty-one times and second eleven times. Her Olympic performances, however, were imperfect. At the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, she lost two gold medals to Switzerland’s Marie Therese Nadig, settling for a silver in downhill and giant slalom. American Cindy Nelson beat her in the World Cup downhill in 1974. The following year, in 1975, she retired for one year at age twenty-two, got married, and opened a cafe.
This window allowed Rosi Mittermeier to pull off her remarkable sweep in the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, capturing a gold in downhill, a gold in slalom, and a silver in giant slalom, making her one of the most decorated women in Alpine skiing. That same year, she became the overall World Cup champion. At twenty-five, she was the oldest Alpine skier competing. Her accomplishments are even more spectacular, given her accident-prone history. She barely survived her complicated birth; she nearly died at six months when a goat crushed her baby carriage and again at age two when she swallowed rat poison. As an adult, she broke her arm skiing into a tourist and nearly blinded herself colliding with a slalom pole while skiing.
Perhaps it was Mittermeier’s success that prodded Moser-Proell out of retirement. It took her three years to get back into shape and back in contention. By 1979 she qualified again for the Olympics, in Lake Placid, New York. Competing in the downhill at the age of twenty-seven, Moser-Proell finally won her Olympic gold medal.
Alpine skier Barbara Ann Cochran deserves mention because of her gold medal in slalom in the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. The course was treacherously icy, and only nineteen of forty-two entrants completed both runs. Cochran didn’t have a long career, but her Olympic performance was encouraging for ten-year-old Tamara McKinney watching the Games from home. “That was the first Olympics that I consciously remember,” says McKinney. “I was watching ski racing and thinking, ‘OK, that’s what I want to do.’ When Barbara Ann Cochran won the slalom, I remember thinking, ‘Someday I want to do that.’”
On the wall in Tamara McKinney’s home in Squaw Valley, California, there is a photo of her maternal grandmother leaping off a ski jump wearing a long black dress. McKinney’s mother, Frances, was equally passionate about skiing, providing every opportunity that she could for her brood of seven. The McKinney children grew up on the ski touring circuit, home-schooled and coached by their mother. The family lived from race to race, settling for the best accommodations they could find at each ski area. Sometimes that meant forgoing hot water and heat. The youngest sibling, Tamara, grew up taking her afternoon naps in a suitcase her mother would bring to the races. While the family toured the circuit, their father, former steeplechase jockey Rigan McKinney, bred horses at their home in Kentucky. Eventually, Frances’s efforts paid off, when Tamara, her older brother Steve, and her older sister Sheila all qualified for the U.S. national team as teenagers.
A diminutive racer at five feet, three inches, and varying between 115 and 130 pounds, McKinney knew she had the talent. She just didn’t know how to harness it at first. “I knew that I had the ability to create a lot of speed when I skied, but I really didn’t know what to do with it,” she says. “I just knew it was something that I needed to be true to.”
Being true to her speed placed McKinney full-time in the World Cup circuit by the time she was fifteen in 1978. At her first major European event, she took third. Her next major win was the World Cup giant slalom title in 1981. Then in 1983 in the world championships held in Furano, Japan, she became the first American woman to win the World Cup title, in tight competition with defending champion Erica Hess of Switzerland and two-time champion Hanni Wensel of Liechtenstein. McKinney skied in the 1984 Olympics, placing fourth in giant slalom. “I remember when I won my first race, and I was told, ‘You are the best in the world today.’ I thought, ‘But you know what? I can do it again. I can do it again,’” says McKinney.
The next several years were emotionally McKinney’s darkest, and they dramatically affected her skiing. Between 1985 and 1988, she lost her father to a stroke, her mother to cancer, and a brother to suicide. These sad events came on top of earlier family tragedies. When McKinney was fourteen, her older sister Sheila had slammed into a post while racing in a World Cup downhill, rendering her unable to walk or talk normally for an entire year. A few years after that, her brother had been seriously injured in a helicopter accident. Competition served as an anchor for McKinney. She won bronze medals in the combined events at the 1985 and 1987 world championships. At the 1988 Calgary Olympics, still healing from a broken left leg, she was unable to finish the giant slalom, or the slalom. In 1989, though, she made her comeback. She took the fold in the women’s combined at the world championships held in Vail, Colorado, beating the favored Vreni Schneider of Switzerland. That victory meant more to McKinney than all the rest, because of how much she’d overcome. “I’d been through so much more,” she says. “In 1989 I came into the world championship with a lot of pressure, and I thought, ‘Watch me. This one’s mine.’”
Before retiring in 1991, McKinney had swept the 1980s World Champion Alpine competition, winning eighteen World Cup races—nine in giant slalom and nine in slalom. But she wasn’t the only skier during this decade to make a name for herself. The same year McKinney placed fourth in the giant slalom, Debbie Armstrong surprised some of he finest skiers in the world by winning the gold at the 1984 Olympics, where she failed to win another medal, and soon after retired from ski competitions.
Diana Golden, a disabled athlete, also charmed the ski community. Golden began skiing as a child, but when doctors discovered cancer in her right leg, they amputated it to prevent the disease from spreading. She was devastated but decided that she still wanted to ski. A few months later, with her doctor’s approval, she was back on the slopes, using the same equipment as everyone else. The only difference was that she was using only one leg. She skied recreationally until her junior in high school, when she caught the attention of a varsity skiing coach. She was asked if she wanted to ski on the team. The workouts were rigorous, but she kept up. Within a year, she’d qualified for the World Games for Disabled Athletes. Between 1986 she won the Beck Award as the best U.S. skier in international competition. Two years later, Ski magazine named her U.S. Female Alpine Skier of the Year and the U.S. Olympic committee deemed her its Female Skier of the Year.
By the seventh decade of women’s competitive skiing, women skiers had gained a reputation as a marketable commodity. The money started coming in. By the early 1980s, with the boom of the ski industry, and entire system was installed to subsidize skiers based on merit. In the United States, equipment companies supplied funds directly to the national team, which distributed a share to each skier. Skiers also earned prize money. Amateur competition rules that had limited an athlete’s access to endorsements relaxed, and skiers were able to have their own personal sponsors. Suzy Chaffee had proved during the 1970s that a ski celebrity could get rich. At the time, her circumstances were unique. By the 1980s, several top-tier women skiers could anticipate lucrative earnings. It is estimated that McKinney’s salary netted in the six figures for a number of years, enough to secure a comfortable retirement and allow her to turn to her family’s second love, horse breeding and riding.
During the 1990s, skiing’s future began to take shape with the rise of superstar Picabo Street. Street wasn’t just a skier. She was a personality who became women’s skiing’s poster girl. To Street, her unprecedented wins were all part of some larger plan. “There are times when I’m really shocked and times when I’m like, ‘This is what was meant for me; this is my destiny,’” she told Skiing magazine in 1995.
Street was born on April 3, 1971, in Triumph, Idaho, to Stubby and Dee Street. Classic sixties holdovers, they named her Baby Girl Street, but since the government wasn’t enthralled about generie names on passports, Stubby and Dee picked the name Picabo, which in the Native American Sho-Ban tribe located nearby is supposed to mean shining waters. Street lived an unconventional childhood. She traveled through Central America with her family, took long domestic cross-country road trips, grew her own food, chopped wood, and was raised in a house with no television. The one convention was this: Like most children growing up outside of Sun Valley, she began skiing at an early age. She didn’t start racing until her high school formed a varsity team, but the five-foot-seven-inch Street, who weighs in at 158 pounds, was aggressive and fast. When she made the U.S. ski team a year later, she was relying primarily on natural talent, winning the national junior downhill and Super G titles in 1988 at the age of sixteen.
Natural talent and nothing else began to look like laziness. In 1990 she was kicked off the U.S. ski team when she showed up for training unprepared and out of shape. She got her act together, rejoined the team, and in four years, between 1991 and 1995, rose from sixty-fifth to eighteenth to eighth to first rank in world downhill. Then she won her silver medal in downhill at the winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Her Olympic medal was followed by a string of victories at the World Cup during the 1994—95 season. After winning six out of nine downhill races, she became the first American woman to win the World Cup title.
Following a successful 1996 World Cup season, Street began training for the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan. Then tragedy struck. In 1997 during a training run at Vail, Colorado, she spun out of control and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. It’s rare for an athlete to compete again at the top level following such an injury. Yet with the help of the doctors at Vail’s famous Stedman Clinic, as well as her trainers, Street believed that with aggressive rehabilitation she could regain her position and make it to the Nagano games one year away. It was a crapshoot, which she undertook with characteristic gusto. Just months before the Games, her comeback was on course. Then she knocked herself unconscious during a crash in Are, Sweden. Things looked bleak to everyone, but not to Street. Considering the complications, her hairbreadth 1998 Olympic victory was all the sweeter.
Street’s topsy-turvy adventure toward fame soon became a smoother ride. Her bubbly joie de vivre has drawn in fans and lured the media. (Following the 1994 Olympics she said no to appearances on Jay Leno’s and David Letterman’s late-night shows but yes to American Gladiators and Sesame Street. In 1998 she changed her mind and was a guest on Letterman.) The corporate world has also taken notice of her public appeal. Street has endorsement deals with Nike, United Airlines, and Chap Stick. She’s Nike’s only female winter-sport athlete, and in 1998, the company introduced her signature Nike sneaker, the Air Max Electrify. Before her 1998 Olympic gold medal win, she told Time magazine that she wanted to become a talk-show host. “Every time I watch Rosie O’Donnell, I think about it more,” she said. “I want to do that with athletes so that the world can see all these powerful and funny personalities.”
While Street was grabbing the limelight at the 1994 and 1998 Olympics, other women quietly claimed their own victories. Thirteen-year U.S. ski team veteran and 1997 world downhill champion Hillary Lindh had a frank, humble attitude about her own brilliant career. For years Lindh provided the team’s only real competition for Street, and though now they’ve patched up their differences, often their relationship was rocky. The two couldn’t be more different. While Street fielded attention from the press, younger ski team members looked to Lindh as their role model. She was the calm, exemplary mother of the team.
Lindh competed in three Olympics and four world championships, capturing the 1986 world junior downhill championship, the 1986 and 1989 U.S. downhill championships, and the 1992 U.S. combined championship. In 1992 she became the first Alaskan to win an individual Olympic medal when she took the silver in downhill. She retired from the team in 1998, following her championship win and a string of equally impressive accomplishments. The Juneau, Alaska native was born May 10, 1969, to a mother who herself had entertained Olympic dreams. “I think it’s really neat that my mom grew up racing Nordic and Alpine,” she says, “and although she didn’t have anywhere near the opportunities in the fifties that I had, she passed that talent down to me and I was able to go to the Olympics.”
There were other standouts during Picabo Street’s skiing career. Canadian-born Julie Parisien, who competed on the U.S. team, won the giant slalom at the 1991 world championships and took first in the giant slalom at the 1991 U.S. World Cup. American Diane Roffe-Steinrotter was the 1994 Olympic gold medalist in the Super G and the 1992 Olympic silver medalist in the giant slalom. German Katja Seizinger was the World Cup circuit’s overall-points leader. U.S. ski team member Kristina Koznick in 1998 pulled in her first World Cup win in slalom just prior to the Olympics, only to disqualify herself in a bid for teh bronze when she straddled a gate during her second slalom run. At the Nagano Games, however, while others received attention from the skiing community, the world seemed to have eyes only for Street.
Snowboarding and Nordic have had their own respectable journeys into the public eye. It’s probably fair to say that snowboarding’s route was more of a party-fest, while Nordic was a test of endurance. True to the nature of Nordic, athletes from that discipline continued to plod a solid steady path, drawing fewer spectators to their less glamorous events. By the 1990s, when the Russians began to win over the Norwegians, the Americans still fell far behind in competitions, though the sport was catching on recreationally. Not so with snowboarding, where once again, the open-minded United States became the center for development of a nontraditional event.
If freestyle was the Woodstock of the sixties, then snowboarding was the decade’s mosh pit. The epitome of a fringe sport, it sprang from a young rebellious generation. As early as 1913, however, sledders had fashioned the first snowboards from barrels. Leather straps secured the riders, who navigated the crude sleds using a rope tied to the nose of the barrel. In 1966 snow surfers, known as Snurfers, became the first mass-produced snowboards. Snowboarders steered their way down a slope by pulling a rope that was crudely attached to the board, which was similar to a large skateboard. Staples covering the deck provided traction for the rider’s feet. Needless to say, Snurfers were difficult to control, prompting ski resorts to ban them from the slopes. Thus began snowboarding’s cult pilgrimage to the backcountry that lasted through the 1970s.
By the late 1980s, snowboarding had nonetheless caught on, and by the 1990s, it was becoming the fastest-growing ski sport, spawning a U.S. team and exhibition. Today, more than two and a half million people snowboard. In the meantime, ski resorts opened their slopes to boarders—the money-making potential was too great to pass up. Then, a final gesture of acceptance: snowboarding was including as an official sport in the 1998 Olympic Games.
Like many snowboard enthusiasts, Sondra Van Ert started out as an Alpine skier. She made the U.S. ski team in 1984 when she was twenty, retiring two years later to finish a college degree in finance. For pleasure she tried snowboarding and got hooked. She loved the floating sensation she got when boarding through powder and the G forces she felt when generating a turn. Van Ert was considered relatively old to compete; nevertheless, she joined the U.S. snowboarding team in 1995 when she was thirty-one. In 1997 she placed first in grand slalom at the world championships in San Condido, Italy. She also placed first in the 1996 and 1997 World Cup competitions. In the 1998 Olympics, she was the top contender for a gold medal in the snowboard giant slalom. Although she ended up placing twelfth, she was proud to be an Olympian and proud to be a boarder. “We’re a real varied bunch of people,” she says of the snowboarding clan. “For me it’s been a lesson, having people judging me because I’m on a snowboard. If they saw me still wearing my U.S. ski team uniform, they’d be drooling. Instead, I’m on a snowboard and they think I’m scum. That really bothers me. I think the Olympics is enriched by having snowboarding. Snowboarding is still in its infancy. The athletes are only there because they love it. The snowboarders still come down to the crowd smiling and waving and congratulating the people who did better than they did. It embodies what the Olympics is supposed to be.”
Nordic ski racing entails grueling mileage through isolated countryside and enjoys quite a different reputation. “Freestyle and snowboarding are very, very glamorous,” says U.S. Nordic ski team member Nina Kemppel. “And we certainly are in the shadow of the obvious giant, Alpine skiing. You have to really be a fairly secure person to go out and put everything on the line in a 10K in the woods where no one can see you. That’s what we do. We go out and hurt our bodies because we love this sport.”
Kemppel, an Alaskan native, has been on the U.S. team for nine years and is considered the best U.S. woman Nordic skier. Internationally, she has competed in two Olympics and finished in the top twenty in two World Cup events. Because in the United States Nordic skiing receives relatively little funding, Kemppel and fellow team member Kerrin Petty live in Norway so they can train with top-level Norwegian and Swedish clubs.
While Norwegian women swept the field during the 1970s, Russian women prevailed during the 1990s. Russian Lyubov Egorova is one of the most decorated athletes in the history of the Winter Games. She has won the gold medal in numerous Olympic competitions, including the 5-kilometer classical in 1994; the 4-and 5-kilometer mixed relay in 1992 and 1994; the 10-kilometer freestyle pursuit in 1992 and 1994; and teh 15-kilometer freestyle in 1992. Following the 1997 world championships, Egorova’s career came to an abrupt halt when she failed a drug test and admitted that she had used a banned substance. Her gold medal win in the 5K competition was revoked, and she was suspended from competition until 2001. Soon after, she announced her retirement.
In the fall of 1997, Alpine skier Jill Sickles Matlock, snowboarder Bonnie Zellers, and telemark skier Kasha Rigby ventured into New Zealand’s Mount Aspiring National Park to climb Mount Aspiring, then descend on their respective boards. Though the trio’s plans were waylaid by bad weather and only Matlock made it up and down the peak, their North Face-sponsored expedition was a symbol of several future trends in women’s skiing, one of which is the adventure off piste. More and more, backcountry skiing is preferred by skiers seeking to push the limits of their sport. There’s higher risk, due to avalanche danger, unstable terrain, and exposure to bad weather. Backcountry skiing also offers a more solitary experience when compared to skiing at crowded, lift-accessed areas.
The fact that Matlock, Zellers, and Rigby all began as Alpine skiers at groomed ski resorts is also typical of the adventure skiing trend. After reaching a pinnacle, all decided to move into what is called extreme skiing. At thirty-four, Matlock was one of the best off-piste Alpine skiers in the world. In 1994 in her first backcountry skiing competition, she won the U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships. In those competitions, the skiers select their own course down a mountain. They are judged by the difficulty of the line they choose and how successfully they ski it. Since her first win, Matlock has taken fifth, second, and third in the World Extreme Skiing Championships and first in the 1996 U.S. championship. Rigby is one of the best women in the world in telemark skiing, a free-heeled style of downhill skiing that traces back to Nordic roots. In 1993 she took fourth place as the sole telemarker in the U.S. Extreme Skiing Championship. As a snowboarder, Zellers claims more first descents than any other woman in the world, among them the Col du Aiguille Verte and the Puobel Couloir in Chamonix. In 1990 she was named snowboarder of the year by International Snowboard magazine.
Trips like this generate a lot of interest. This is good news for women who wish to raise money to support their adventure trips, as these women did through North Face. In fact, the all-women’s trip was considered important enough to become a Women’s Sport and Fitness magazine cover story.
Whether the credit goes to Picabo Street’s outsized ego, Title IX legislation securing equal access to sports for girls and women, or the fans who proved the popularity of women’s sports during the 1998 summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, the corporate world now knows that women’s sports generate revenue. Top athletes like Street can become celebrities. Athletes like Matlock, Rigby, and Zellers can get money to fund their adventures. But perhaps even more significant is how the accomplishments of the elite have transformed the sport for the average skier. Whether Alpine, Nordic, freestyle, or snowboard, whether downhill at a ski area, skating on a track, or touring in the backcountry, all women can enjoy the opportunities and respect earned by a century’s worth of dedicated women: a century spent floating over snow.