America's Cup skipper Dennis Conner can be grateful the Swiss aren't into boats. If they sailed as well as they ski, the Auld Mug would probably spend the next three years in Zurich instead of San Diego. The way the Swiss dominate Alpine ski racing these days makes the United States' 4-0 America's Cup win over Australia look like a squeaker. At the completion of the nine-day World Skiing Championships at Crans-Montana, Switzerland, Sunday, the ``home team'' had won eight of 10 events and collected 14 medals - eight gold, four silver, and two bronze. Compare that with the four medals each won by Austria and West Germany, the three apiece for Luxembourg and Yugoslavia, and the one each for Italy and the United States.
The Swiss women won all five of their events and the men won three, easily breaking the previous record of five gold medals set by Austria in 1962. The only other countries with gold this time were Luxembourg (Marc Girardelli in the men's combined downhill-slalom) and West Germany (dark horse Frank Woerndl in Sunday's men's slalom).
Pirmin Zurbriggen won golds in the men's giant slalom and super giant slalom (a combination of giant slalom and downhill), was second to teammate Peter Mueller in the downhill, and also got a silver in the combined. The 1984 men's World Cup champion is now so balanced in his downhill and giant slalom skills, it's hard to imagine his not winning another World Cup crown.
The experts have long maintained that in today's tough men's world-class competition, only specialists need apply for first place. But by winning downhills and super giant slaloms as well as giant slaloms, Zurbriggen is defying that unwritten ``rule.''
In women's competition it's not quite so rare to find all-around racers. But when has there ever been a team with the likes of Maria Walliser, Erika Hess, Vreni Schneider, Brigette Oertli, and Michela Figini? Walliser won two golds (downhill and super-G) and a bronze (giant slalom) at Crans-Montana. She appears a shoo-in to keep her 1986 women's overall World Cup crown. But she can't afford to look back, for Schneider (winner of the giant slalom at Crans-Montana), Oertli, and Hess are second, third, and fourth, respectively, in current World Cup overall standings, while Figini is second behind Walliser in the downhill standings).
It's Hess, however, who has assumed legendary proportions. She plans to retire from competition after this season at the age of 25, having won two overall World Cup championships, one World Cup giant slalom crown, and - count 'em - four World Cup slalom championships - five if she wins this season. When she hasn't won she usually has been runner-up. At Crans-Montana she won her slalom specialty and also got a gold in the women's combined (which included a third in the downhill portion of that event, a remarkable finish for an elfin slalom skier).
Although she may have looked like a Swiss farm girl when she first came on the circuit, today Hess radiates a graceful, intelligent piquancy. Asked by a reporter last December how she would like ski racing fans to think of her, she hesitated. ``I don't know,'' she said. ``How would you like me to think of you?''
As for the Americans, the team at best is struggling and at worst seems in trouble. It has been riddled with injuries. Except for downhiller Mike Brown (out with an injured hand) and Felix McGrath, who came in third in the slalom portion of the men's combined at Crans-Montana, the men's team has been dismayingly disappointing. Men's slalom coach Jean Pierre Chatellard was recently quoted as saying the men's team was neither mentally tough nor working hard enough.
Only 1983 women's World Cup champion Tamara McKinney seems in any position to challenge the Swiss this year. She got a bronze in the women's combined at Crans-Montana (winning the slalom portion), and she resumes the World Cup chase at Meg`eve, France, Friday in sixth and first place, respectively, in World cup overall and slalom standings.
But with previous medal-winning talent on the team like Diann Roffe, Debbie Armstrong, and Eva Twardokens, more is expected. ``Our team was slack coming in [to the World Championships],'' said a disappointed US alpine director Harald Schoenhaar after the races. ``We can't afford to do that anymore.''
Schoenhaar says he will ``revive the team's sports medicine council,'' which includes former successful coach John McMurtry and trainer John Atkins. Supposedly, this might improve both conditioning and psychology. (Last year's women's coaches were removed almost en masse.)
``Sometimes it's hard to get the mental energy together,'' Armstrong was quoted as saying at Crans-Montana. Hard or not, the challenge is to do just that.