US storming the ski circuit

The big news on the World Cup ski circuit this season is the unprecedented overall success of the US team. The Anerican women's Alpine team at this writing stands second in the running for the Nations' Cup, behind only Switzerland and ahead of the once seemingly invincible Austrians. Tamara McKinney provided the US women with their first World Cup victory in two years with her giant slalom win at Haute Nendaz, Switzerland. Then the talented 18- year-old Californian encored with a second consecutive triumph in another giant slalom at Les Gets, France.

Furthermore, there have been several finishes in the top five by Christin Cooper and Abbi Fisher in slalom and giant slalom, and by Holly Flanders and Cindy Nelson in downhill.

While the men have not had so many names in the top 10, Olympic slalom silver medalist Phil Mahre's all-around fine performances, including his first-ever ninth in the Hahnenkamm downhill, has made him a prime contender in the race for the coveted men's World Cup. He even forced Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, generally recognized as the world's best technical skier, to do something he said he wouldn't do: race in the downhill to try to pick up important points in the Hahnenkamm "combined" (best finishes in downhill as well as slalom).

"The man to beat now is Phil Mahre, and I can't afford to let him get too far ahead," Stenmark was quoted as saying.

Indeed, Mahre is not ahead, but because of his well-known slalom and giant slalom ability, plus his improving downhill results, he is generally considered the only racer with a chance of beating Stenmark for men's overall honors.

In Nordic Combined, an esoteric exercise in disparate skills (ski jumping and cross- country ski racing), 23-year-old Kerry Lynch has led the team to amassing more international points than has been done by Americans in the previous 20 years. By late January, Lynch had secured one first and two seconds in the toughest of competitions. The Coloradan, who plays in a country-Western band, has made the biggest American splash in Nordic Combined since John Bower won the King's Cup at the Holmenkollen at Oslo in 1968.

This sudden -- and for many observers long-overdue -- success of so many American ski racers undoubtedly stems from a variety of causes. Part of it undoubtedly represents the fruits of the greater emphasis on development programs over the last few years. Also, of course, there are new coaching staffs in place this winter in both Alpine and Nordic events, and perhaps the new mentors under program directors Bill Marolt and Jim Page have somehow been able to instill that extra grain of confidence that makes the difference between finishing in the top 10 and just finishing.

Interestingly, the success of the national teams coincides with a burgeoning racing boom among American recreational skiers as well. Ski areas throughout the country, in fact, are becoming dotted with race courses accommodating near-beginners to super experts.

There has also been an increase in televised ski events, with almost weekly showings of World Cup or US pro head-to- head races, or both. Also, there are even regional pro races in the East, Midwest, and West, as well as a women's pro circuit -- all vying for sponsorship and attempting to build up interest in the spectator aspects of the sport.

Whether all the commercialized hype over this minor-league professional racing is of much interest to the average weekend skier is still a question. But the weekend skier's increasing interest in running slalom gates himself or herself is not.

There are now standard races for regular skiers, super-expert skiers, night skiers, junior recreational skiers, ski clubs, and families. Most of these have national championships, to which regional winners are carted off, all expenses paid, by commercial sponsors hoping to be identified with the winners.

There are also just plain local recreational races, of course, but by far the nation's biggest recreational racing program is NASTAR (for National Standard Race). Headquartered in Aspen and masterminded by Bob Beattie, the former ski coach who does the ski racing commentary for ABC Sports with Frank Gifford, NASTAR has grown from a program at eight ski areas 12 years ago to one at 117 areas this season. At each, skiers race for gold, silver, and bronze medals, awarded according to the handicapped time of every racer. Last season there were more than 180,700 entries.

Meanwhile, ski schools are finding that while traditional group ski lessons are sometimes hard to sell, newfangled racing classes and clinics are not. Many of them include videotaping sessions.

The newest wrinkle in the racing craze is a coin-operated, self-operated race course. Skiers drop in a token or coin, wait for the green light, blast over a 1,200-foot course, and read their time on a digital tote board. A few Colorado areas have invested several thousand dollars each in the system, and at Butternut Basin in the Beckshires of Massachusetts, the area has even cut a special slalom slope, installed new snowmaking, and erected a new lift to service the self-operated race course.

Ah, to know that this time you went faster than last time. The urge, apparently, is irresistible. Fifty cents, please.

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