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US ski team herringbones up the slope

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"Our problem is the whole attitude toward skiing in this country," Rickenbach said. "Look at the TV coverage. In Europe it's like football. Here we get 10 minutes on Saturday afternoon -- when everbody is out skiing."

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But of course everybody isn't skiing -- which is another part of the problem. Football, basketball, baseball, and other sports draw off the lion's share of the very best American athletes -- while in Europe the only major competition is soccer. Ski racers over there are national celebrities with ample opportunities for monetary rewards -- which of course adds up to a lot more motivation, and perhaps at least subconsiously a greater willingness to take risks in quest of victory.

"When it's all on TV, when you see 40,000 people out on the hillside cheering , when you can become a national hero by winning a big race -- sure there's a big difference," Rickenbach said.

So those are some of the osbtacles which must be overcome, but today's US ski racing scene does have some positive signs. For one thing, the more liberal rules under which amateur sports now operate seem to have ended the frustrating cycle in which America's top racers were always turning pro or finding some other way to make a living just as they were reaching their peaks. In th eold days, for instance, skiers like the Mahres, Patterson, etc., would probably have retired after Lake Placid, but now they're still on hand to score points of their own and also to serve as role models and competitive standard setters for the up-and-coming youngster.

Also, there is the promise of the current crop of prospects -- third year downhiller Doug Powell, second year men Billy Dorris (slalom) an dMike Farney (downhill), and "rookies" John Buxman, Hansi Standteiner, and Mark Tache, all primarily slalom skiers, along with Dave stapleton, another downhill specialist. They're all products of the everincreasing empahsis on youth development programs, and the idea is that out of this group will emerge at least one or two names to be reckoned with in the years ahead.

The US women, who did not joint the men here but instead went directly to Val d'Isere two weeks ago to begin their own final preparations, are in a somewhat similar situation. historically the American females have done a bit better than their male counterparts in international competition (four Olympic gold medals to none, for istance), but recently they've had their problems too, with only one bronze (Cindy Nelson in the downhill) in the 1976 and no medals at all at Lake Placid. They too, therefore, are emphasizing the development of young rpspects such as teen-agers Heidi Preuss and Tamara McKinney, both of whom exploded upon the scene last season by finishing in the top 15 in the overall World Cup standings, with Preuss also just missing a medal in the Olympic via her spectacular fourth place in the downhill.

"This season we will hope for some more surprises from youngsters, but you don't ask for that," rickenbach said of his own charges, but with words that could apply just as easily to the entire US men's and women's effort. "The thing now is to get them the internatinal experience they need and keep them moving up gradually."