It may have been the International Year of the Child in 1979, but it looks as if 1980 will be the year of the skiing woman. Not only are the Winter Olympics virtually upon us, with female athletes gaining increasing attention and respect, but the first-ever Women's World Ski Expo is currently under way at Stratton Mountain, Vt. The week-long extravaganza began Jan. 6 and concludes Sunday with a $25,000 pro race.
As long as money is a measure of how professional sports are developing, this year shapes up as a good one for female skiers, with the Stratton race ushering in a 15-event tour offering $165,000 in prize money. Compared to golf or tennis , this may be small potatoes, but considering that it is exactly $165,000 more than the amount available just a few seasons back, the skiers and the fans are happy.
No one is happier, though, than Lyndall Heyer, a 23-year-old native of Stowe, Vt., who is president of the women's Alpine Skiing Association and one of the leading money winners in the races that have been held sporadically over the last two winters.
"It's going to be a great season," she enthuses. "We've got sponsors who are committed to us. We have an added element of glamour that will help us. Television is interested.And we're finishing off the season with a joint meeting with the men at Mammoth Mountain, Calif. It'll be their last race and our second to the last. A few years ago, there were joint meets too, and the women were brought to fill in when the men were riding the lifts. This time, everything will be even-steven for the men and women. The races will be scheduled at equally good times and the courses will be equally accessible to spectators."
If women have had to wait for this sort of parity with the men, they have taken freely from the dual-course giant slalom and slalom format so successfully developed by te men's tour. The courses contain three high bumps amid the sea of gates that must be navigated. The qualifying racers are winnowed down from the round of 32 to the best two who vie for the top place. Each pair races twice, changing courses, which means that the best racers must make a total of 10 runs to secure a top place in an event.
"It's very different from amateur racing,says Heyer, who was a member of the US Ski Team. "It's like another sport.The turns are easier, but the bumps give some of the skiers trouble. And you really have to have a lot of stamina to last through the finals. Also, technique counts. Wax doesn't really matter, because you wear it off after the first few runs."
As in the men's tour, success in women's racing isn't predicated on a particularly brilliant amateur racing career. Toril Forland, a Norwegian-born ex-college racer led the money winnings last year with $15,000 based on victories in five of nine races. Teri and Traci Nelson, the flamboyant twins who are sisters of 1976 Olympic bronze medalist and 1980 hopeful Cindy Nelson, add a touch of glamour to the tour. Jocelyne Perillat, a former French national team member, is a specialist in down hill, which is scheduled for the women's finals at Vail, colo., in April. Heyer herself was the youngest racer ever to win a junior national title but she never developed as expected in the World Cup ranks.
"I do better as a pro than I did as an amateur, because I really want to win, " she says. "I'm training a lot here at home and at the University of Vermont in Burlington, where I work out with the ski team. I know the better shape I'm in, the better chance I have to make money. When I was an amateur and was told what to do, I sort of resented it. Now that I tell myself what to do, I work harder than ever."
Heyer feels the next breakthrough will come when the women's pro tour attracts top amateurs upon their retirement -- a Rosi Mittermaier, for instances , who won the world Cup and three Olympic medals in 1976. Women's racing, she feels, needs name skiers.
"There may be some racers who are committed through the Olympics and the rest of the World Cup season," Heyer says, "but we hope to get some of the big names next year. We especially would like to get some of the best US racers, because Americans like to root for Americans."