The blossoming of ski champion Wenzel

There was a time when Liechtenstein's Hanni Wenzel was the darling of the World Cup ski racing circuit because she was a fantastic ski racer -- a winning one-woman ski tean from a 62-square-mile country few people could pronounce and fewer could locate.

Today, she is the darling of just about everybody who watched the 1980 Winter Olympics, not just because she won gold medals in giant slalom and slalom and a silver in downhill, but because she has blossomed into a glamorous and exciting personality as well.

That radiant smile framed by golden tresses, the lithe figure alwasy so perfectly over her skis no matter how difficult the course -- this could be Hollywood's version of a champion ski-racing princess.

But it was not always thus. Only a couple of years ago, it seems, Hanni struck many as a rather one-dimensional ski racer, totally set on winning the 1978 women's World Cup (she did) and beating anybody who might get in the way. If there were other facets of her personality, they did not readily come through.

Since then, she's obviously pushed her hair a few tones to the blonde side. But the metamorphosis is much more than that. It's not an easy question to ask a 23-year-old -- particularly one who has just won all that Olympic hardware and appears ready to lock up the 1980 woman's World Cup. But at the post-Olympic World Cup races here, I couldn't resist asking to what Hanni attributes the changes.

"I don't know!" she said laughing, but somehow indicating it was not the first time she had been asked. Others have noted the transformation. Rudolf Schadler, president of the Liechtenstein Ski Federation who is accompanying the five-person Liechtenstein skiteam, tells of Hanni stopping by his office from time to time when she was working out a problem.

"Sometimes she would have something on her mind at home, sometimes elsewhere, " he explains. But slowly her abiding concerns have expanded beyond winning the next ski race, although that is what she continues to do with regularity.

She now has a boy friend ("non-skiing"). her appearance, misleadingly, is less fiercely competitive. And her relaxed self-assurance reveals someone who is totally enjoying the acclaim she has worked so hard to achieve.

"In the Olympics I wanted most the gold medal in gaint slalom," she said. (She had just been going on at length in an Austrian radio hook-up, and now whenever she couldn't think of the desired English word, she would pull at those tresses.) "In slalom it is not so important."

Why? Because she is known as the most technically perfect female giant slalom racer extant?

A bright smile responds instantly to the recognition. "I think so," she answered simply.

She says she has not yet made up her mind whether she will continue racing next year and hasn't any idea what she will do when she quits. But she acknowledges that racing is "fun" for her now; and you get the idea she will be back, even if she wins her second World Cup this season, which she appears likely to do. Her nearest rival, Austria's great Annemarie Moser-Proell, would have to win the two remaining slaloms and Hanni earn no more World Cup points for Moser-Proell to beat her.

Then on March 17 little Liechtenstein will have a 24-hour celebration worthy of St. Patrick but all in honor of their favorite medal-winning skier, Hanni. Oh yes, and you can add two other Wenzels who made up three-fifths of the winning Liechtenstein ski team. Younger brother Andreas won a silver medal in the giant slalom at Lake Placid and is second to Ingemar Stenmark in the men's World Cup standings, and little sister Petra is fast rising to become a top-seeded racer herself.

What is it that Liechtenstein has that can produce potential World Cup winners and four Olympic medals out of population of 25,000 people or less? Schadler cites the principality's one family ski report, Malbun, 8,000 skiers, or approximately one-third of the population, and a government-sponsored ski instruction program that sends 1,500 pupils each year for a week to Malbun.

"It's not made for just selecting and training the best racers," he says, although that is one of the effects. "It is made for joy of free skiing!"

Hanni seems to be a living testimonial. "When we were young, we would ski as a family all the time. In the summer we are all climbing, winter skiing -- always in the mountains. My mother and father still ski sporty," she says referring to that "joy of free skiing."

And will Liechtenstein's programs continue to produce skiing champions? "There are many racers, but you can't say whether any will be another Wenzel," Hanni responds.

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