North America emerging as ski power

Canadian Steve Pobdorski has brought the World Cup downhill trophy across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, signifying a further shift toward North America in world ski racing dominance.

Putting himself on the line 10 times in this most dangerous of all the Alpine events paid off for Podborski this winter as he clinched the title during the first of two races held here last weekend.

His victory, coming on top of American Phil Mahre's second straight overall World Cup championship and the tremendous season-long showing of the US women, has helped boost North American prestige to an all-time high in this sport so long dominated by Europeans.

And just as Mahre's success has spurred interest in skiing among the US public, so to an even greater degree has Podborski become the darling of Canadian fans, many of whom follow his every race with European-like fervor.

Downhill racers are lionized in the alpine countries of Europe because of their courage and cool in situations which would daunt most skiers. They race down icy mountainsides at speeds up to 85 miles per hour, hurtling up to 150 feet in the air off bumps, and making turns as tight and fast as most auto racers -- only with no roll bars or seat belts.

The Canadians have gathered momentum in this event ever since the national team decided to concentrate on downhill in the middle 1970s. When Dave Irwin, Dave Murray, Ken Read and Podborski started winning races, the European press dubbed them the Kamikaze Canucks.

''It was like they couldn't understand why all of a sudden we were winning races, so they used that image,'' Irwin recalls. ''We did take more chances than the others, but every winning downhiller always takes more chances.''

Irwin and Murray announced their retirement here.

''It is sad to be leaving, but I've given it everything I've had and I've had some good results,'' Irwin said.

The Canadian downhill team calls itself ''the Family'' and while they're saddened by their older brothers' departure, a younger brother, Todd Brooker, thrilled them and the American, Canadian and European television viewers with a amazing second place finish at Aspen despite coming off a bump at over 70 miles per hour with one ski flailing above his head. Showing incredible strength and poise, Brooker balanced on one ski and brought the other one back down to the snow, almost crossing his tips, a few moments later.

''I almost lost it more than once. I thought the game was over,'' a relieved Brooker said.

Brooker actually had signaled his arrival on the World Cup scene a week earlier with a fifth place finish on Whistler Mountain, British Columbia. And it was in that same race that Podborski all but wrapped up the title with a second-place finish that virtually ended any hopes Austria's defending champion Harti Weirather had of catching him.

Sentimental favorite Irwin scored his first World Cup points of the season (the top 15 in each race score points) with a third place win on the tough Whistler course. Twenty thousand Canadians lined the course at Whistler's, and Irwin said, ''I could hear them all the way up to the starting gate. Every time a Canadian ran, a big roar would go up. Then when I ran I could hear them at every bump and turn in the course through my helmet. I never thought that it could really help you, but I know it did this time.''

Tim Read finished 7th and Bob Styan 13th, giving Canada five of the first 13 places. At the awards ceremony an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 fans burst into ''Oh! Canada,'' then chanted ''Pod! Pod! Pod!'' when Podborski took the stand.

''It was amazing,'' Podborski said. ''I'd never seen anything like it.'' But the adulation he received is not why Steve races. ''The skiing is great. That is why I do it.''

Podborski started out at a ski area named Craigleith 2 1/2 hours outside Toronto, his hometown. Toronto is an unusual hometown for a World Cup racer - most grow up practically at the base of chairlifts like the Mahre brothers.

Phil Mahre, a slalom and giant slalom specialist who seldom trains for the downhill but enters some races to gain World Cup points, competed here. He did well, too, charging down the treacherous course for 9th and 16th place finishes despite brushing the same gate in both races with his elbow.

Considering his lack of practice in the discipline, Phil approaches downhill racing with a nonchalance which surprises most ski racing experts. On his first training run here, he was skiing at 65 miles per hour when one ski came off. Unruffled, he casually made a few turns on one ski and came to a stop, amazing coaches and competitors.

Phil's twin brother Steve would be the best American ski racer in history if not for Phil. Although he rarely runs downhill, he's won two slalom races so far this season and took the gold medal in giant slalom at the world championships in Schladming, Austria. Steve is now tied with Peter Mueller of Switzerland for third in the World Cup overall point list behind Phil and Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden.

A younger Mahre brother, Paul, is concentrating on downhill - partly, no doubt, to forge his own identity. At Whistler he started last of the 55 racers, supposedly out of reach of the top 20, but rode the ruts on the course to a most surprising ninth place finish. The other US downhillers ran through the finish area and hoisted him on their shoulders.

All this North American success doesn't necessarily mean the decline of European racers. But with Podborski following the Mahres' feats by beating the Europeans in their traditional downhill stronghold, it indeed serves notice that North America is the emerging power in world ski competition.

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