Waterville Valley, N.H. — From the time she finished third in her first major European race as a precocious 15-year-old, Tamara McKinney was tabbed as a skier to watch, but inconsistency always seemed to leave her just a shade away from the top. This winter, however, she has put it all together, and with three races left she stands on the threshold of becoming the first American woman ever to win the World Cup.
For three months in Europe, Tamara battled for the lead with defending champion Erika Hess of Switzerland and veteran former titleholder Hanni Wenzel of Liechtenstein. Then just when things were beginning to look darkest, when she had failed to finish three straight races and dropped from first to third place, she stormed to the top again in spectacular fashion here.
Urged on by an enthusiastic, partisan crowd, Tamara turned in a strong second place finish in Tuesday's slalom race, gaining enough points in the process to take over the No. 1 position in the overall standings, then widened her lead to commanding proportions by winning successive giant slaloms on Wednesday and Thursday.
''The first race was the big one for my confidence,'' she said of her slalom effort. ''The three races before that, I tried so hard - a little too hard, I think. I took too many chances, and I sort of forgot about just going out and skiing. I was still trying to win here, but I wanted to finish a race too.''
Now with one race to go in Colorado and two in Japan, McKinney leads Hess in points 205-188 and looks very hard to beat. And like Phil Mahre, who has won his third straight men's title, she is also finally beginning to get some recognition in her own country.
The US public puts skiing on a back burner in non-Olympic years, but McKinney's feats have pushed her into the limelight anyway.
It doesn't hurt that Tamara's life story has a ''stranger than fiction'' aura. The youngest child of former steeplechase jockey Rigan McKinney and his wife, Frances, Tamara was born in Kentucky - seemingly an unlikely beginning for a ski racer exept that her ski instructor mother always made sure the children got plenty of trips to the mountains.
All of the McKinney children have been racers. Tamara's older brother, Steve, was a world record holder in the ''flying kilometer'' event in which skiers hit speeds of 125 m.p.h. or so. And older sister Sheila was a promising young racer until she was injured in 1977.
That was a tough period for Tamara - but in retrospect she thinks it may also have been an important one in firming up her resolve.
''I don't think I ever wanted to quit, but maybe when she was hurt I questioned things a little,'' she recalls. ''Then I got hurt that summer riding a horse [Tamara is an excellent horsewoman who could conceivably also compete at the world class level someday in equestrian sports], and got hurt again in the fall when the ski season began.
''I had a lot of time to think and analyze, and I realized I was serious about ski racing. I was only 15, but I knew I wanted to try my hardest and do my best. Maybe that was a turning point. I didn't get to race until February, and when I did, I was ready and hungry.''
Tamara's progress since then was slowed by other injuries as well as an inability to put two good runs together. She had occasional good results but was really still a year away from top contention at the 1980 Olympics.
Meanwhile Hess, who is a year younger, won a bronze in the slalom, then finished second in the World Cup standings in 1981 and won the title last winter. But Tamara is up there now - and Assistant US Alpine Director Bob Harkins offers some insights as to why it took her a little longer.
''It takes time to develop at this level,'' he said, ''and some people need more time than others. The Europeans enjoy intense competition all the time from a very young age. Ski racing is the Super Bowl to them. Everybody tries to be a ski racer. We have to go over there to experience this, and a lot of times we have a one-to-two-year lag in development.''
People once thought McKinney's relative lack of size for her sport (5 ft. 4 in. and 117 pounds) might also hold her back, but she has developed more than enough strength for her style, which emphasizes touch, finesse, and a sheer love of speed. Other skiers and coaches, in fact, marvel at the feeling she has in her skis and the way she seems to float through the gates. And of course her results and those of the even smaller Hess are proof enough that size is hardly essential if you have enough else going for you.
McKinney's first really big year was 1981, but she has no regrets that she hit her stride a year too late for any real shot in 1980 at the Olympic glory with which the American public is so infatuated..
''Maybe the reason I did well in '81 was the experience of '80,'' she said. ''It's hard when you have ability and all of a sudden something is expected of you. You're not sure how to bottle it and control it. It took me a while to learn how to be consistent and put it all together. I needed that experience.''
Nor does it bother her that even as she bids for her sport's biggest honor, the media has already shifted focus to 1984 and started talking of her more as a ''gold medal hopeful'' than a potential World Cup winner.
''That's just how they relate to skiing,'' she shrugged. ''That's all that's been publicized. It's not in my immediate focus, of course. I'm not thinking Olympics or gold medal. I'm just thinking about each race, one at a time.''