Lake Placid, N.Y. — In perhaps the most dramatic moment yet of these 1980 Lake Placid games, the greatest female ski racer in history finally captured the one big prize that had always eluded her -- an Olympic gold medal.
After eight years of waiting, this was the moment of truth for Annemarie Moser-Proell -- and she was ready for it. The fabulous Austrian veteran exploded out of the starting gate with fire in her eyes and absolutely attacked the steep and treacherous upper portion of the 2,698 meter women's downhill course on Whiteface Mountain.
Battling temperatures near zero and winds gusting to 40 mph, Annemarie charged past the first checkpoint more than a full second faster than anyone who had gone before her. Holding her speed on the flatter middle portion (another Moser-Proell trademark), she increased her lead steadily and flashed across the finish line in one minute, 37.52 seconds.
This was just the beginning of the drama, however, for poised now at the top of the course was none other than Marie-Theres Nadig. Would this be Sapporo all over again?
Back in 1972 the 18 year old Moser-Proell was the youngest-ever World Cup champion and the Olympic gold medal favorite in both the downhill and giant slalom. But Nadig, a year younger and unknown upset her in both races, relegating Annemarie to a pair of silvers.
Moser-Proell went on to dominate the sport as no other woman ever has, but after the 1975 season, for variety of reasons, she retired -- missing the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics in her native Austria.
The next season she returned to racing just as dominant as ever. In all she has now won 65 World Cup races and six overall championships -- career records that may well never be approached by any other skier. But this winter it was Nadig who was on a hot streak, winning six of seven World Cup downhills. Here was her Swiss nemesis again, ready to try to shatter the dream as she had in Sapporo 8 years earlier.
Nadig reached the first checkpoint in 37.33 -- much faster than any of the other competitors but 14 -- 100ths of a second behind Moser-Proell's time. She lost more than a full second in the next stretch, and it was all over. Marie theres came in at 1:38.36 -- and the Austrians in the crowd went wild.
"Annemarie, Annemarie, Annemarie!" they sang and shouted over and over, crowding around their heroine in wild jubilation. She too, after watching the board intently throughout Nadig's run, threw her arms in the air and embraced her husband, Herbert. There were still 19 skiers to go at that point, but to all intents and purposes the race was over.
"I knew then I had a 99 percent chance of winning," Moser-Proell said. "She was the one I had to beat." (Ironically, another skier, Hannie wenzel also beat Nadig to edge her for the silver.)
The pressure has been intense on Annemarie in the days leading up to the competition -- as she freely admitted in her post-race interview.
"I felt I had to win this gold medal," she said. "It was the only one I didn't have. Everybody kept reminding me about Sapporo and saying I had to win this time."
"I was very confident," she said. "I never thought of losing. I had trained well, and from the start of the race I kept thinking I was going to win today."
Finally, the day that might have been in '72 or '76 came.
Asked how she had felt when West Germany's Rosi Mittermayer won those two golds and a silver at Innsbruck -- if she had watched the races and if she had thought it should have been her time of triumph -- Moser-Proell replied:
"I was home taking care of my father, who was very ill. I didn't think one minute about the racing then, and I didn't regret one bit that I wasn't there. It was so much more important for me to be at home."
Her father had started Annemarie on the road to glory, making her first pair of skis himself and teaching her to use them at the age of four in their native alpine village of Kleinarl. The youngster had a natural talent, and by age 13 was creating excitement in Austrian ski racing circles. Four years later, in 1971, she won her first World Cup and was on her way.
Now, of course, she has fulfilled the final dream, and perhaps before these games are over she can add even more triumphs. The downhill is far and away Moser-Proell's best event, as seen by the fact that 37 of ther 65 world cup victories have been in that discipline. That still leaves a lot of wins in teh slalom and giant slalom too, however, and the way she's skiing right now, no one will be very surprised if she adds one of two more medals -- gold or otherwise -- to her collection.