Young racers in good early showing, but veterans still look strong

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Before 30,000 screaming Yugoslav compatriots 19-year-old Rok Petrovic skied to his second slalom win of the young World Cup season last weekend. Tiger Shaw of the United States came in eighth, the best slalom finish for an American male since Phil and Steve Mahre retired in 1984 -- and who knows how long before that? Shaw had just joined the tour and still had the third best time in the blistering second run. Meanwhile, two slalom aces, World Cup champion Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg and former champ Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden, did not finish the treacherously fast course at Kranjska-Gora, Yugoslavia. All of which led a US Ski Team spokesman to observe: ``There's definitely a new generation of slalom skiers on the horizon.''

Two years ago I watched Petrovic and other young Yugoslav competitors like Mateja Svet (then 15 years old) overwhelm the opposition at the World Junior Championships at Sugarloaf, Maine. Like Sweden, Japan, and Norway, Yugoslavia has concentrated on developing young skiing talent. But the latter country, in particular, has invested heavily in screening and training young racers. The program has concentrated on not pushing kids so fast as to ``burn them out'' -- a problem in the past -- but to nurture th em carefully into world-class ski racers.

Judging from the likes of Petrovic and Svet, it's paying off. Although Petrovic had a half-second lead after the first run at Kranjska-Gora, he raced like a demon in his second run -- or, by his own definition, ``with the power of a tiger but the lightness of a bird.'' Think he might have gotten that image from a perceptive coach somewhere along the ladder?

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In its own way, the US Ski Team has been trying to bring young talent along, too. After winning the increasingly prestigious NorAm (for North American) racing circuit last season, 22-year-old Felix McGrath of Norwich, Vt., has joined the World Cup tour with Shaw this year. Saturday, he finished an impressive 12th in the first run before not finishing the second.

Despite this influx of new talent, however, anyone counting Girardelli or Stenmark among the has-beens would be making a serious mistake.

Girardelli, the Austrian who left that country's ski team because of a dispute, is again leading the overall point standings at this juncture. Furthermore, he is acting as though he wants to become the first triple-threat champion (downhill, giant slalom, and slalom) since France's legendary Jean-Claude Killy won all three individual titles as well as the overall crown in 1967.

Marc last year vied with Switzerland's Pirmin Zurbriggen (now coming back from an injury) before winning both the slalom and giant slalom championships in addition to the overall title. But he never was a threat in the downhill -- until this month's season opener at Val d'Isere, that is, when he stunned a lot of people with a second place finish behind Michael Mair of Italy.

And those who thought the great Stenmark had retired can be excused, since he hadn't won a World Cup race since March 1984 at Vail, Colo. But at this season's first giant slalom (at La Villa, Italy), he won what he called ``my greatest victory.'' And he did it in typical Stenmark style, blasting the field in a come-from-behind second run after standing fourth at the end of the first run.

On the cross-country scene, World Cup Champion Gunde Svan of Sweden totally dominated this season's opening races in North America. But a little-known Canadian named Pierre Harvey claimed almost as much attention with two fourths at Labrador and at Giants Ridge, Minn.

In a telephone interview Sunday, Yan Kunzcynski, president of Lift Engineering of Carson City, Nev., designer and manufacturer of the Keystone triple chair that failed Dec. 14, said that Keystone's and five lifts like it (in Colorado, Vermont, and California) were in the process of being modified quickly. All those lifts were shut down after the accident. Modifications include new bullwheels, hubs, and safety frames, he said. In the Keystone mishap, a top-driven bullwheel separated from its hub causing 60 people to be thrown to the ground; 49 were injured, two critically, according to Keystone. A Colorado tramway safety engineer told a Denver public hearing that a design error caused the separation. Questions raised by the accident will be discussed in this space at a later date.

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