The United States has had its individual skiing stars over the years, but never enough depth to seriously challenge the European nations that have perennially dominated the sport. All this appears to be changing, however, according to the spectacular, best-ever US showing at the World Alpine Championships. And enthusiastic Americans are already hailing the results as the beginning of a new era.
Three US skiers - Steve Mahre, Christin Cooper, and Cindy Nelson - won medals as the Americans outdid all other countries with a total of five in the week-long competition that concluded Sunday in Schladming, Austria. Even that didn't tell the whole story, as several teammates such as Tamara McKinney, Holly Beth Flanders, and Cindy Oak came close with Top 10 finishes in various events. And of course Phil Mahre, Steve's much more famous twin brother, has already clinched his second straight World Cup, emblematic of season-long supremacy.
''We have never had such a good team showing in any world ski event,'' said Bill Marolt, the alpine director of the US team.
''The days of the one-man team are gone,'' he added in reference to the way Phil Mahre has carried the American banner virtually single-handedly the last few years.
Cooper made the biggest medal haul for the Americans, with silvers in both the slalom and giant slalom and a bronze in the Alpine combined. The 22-year-old resident of Sun Valley, Idaho, thus became the only US skier of either sex to win three medals in a single world championship or Olympic competition. Meanwhile the 26-year-old Nelson, a veteran of the circuit who won an Olympic bronze at Innsbruck in 1976, took silver in the downhill to give the US women four medals overall.
The men couldn't match that total, but Steve Mahre's victory over the favored Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden in the giant slalom had its own precedent-shattering aspects: He was the first American man ever to capture a gold medal in an individual world championship or Olympic race.
The only other US male to win a gold medal at one of these between-Olympics world championship competitions was Billy Kidd, who did not win any individual event but took top honors in the Alpine combined scoring at Val Gardena, Italy, in 1970. Phil Mahre accomplished this same feat at Lake Placid in 1980 to earn a world championship gold medal, though not an Olympic one, since Alpine combined is not an Olympic event.
While the Americans were enjoying their overall team success, Erika Hess of Switzerland was easily the dominant individual star of the 1982 competition. The 19-year-old skier, who also leads in the race for this winter's women's World Cup, won three gold medals - in the slalom, giant slalom, and Alpine combined. Gerry Sorensen of Canada took the other women's gold medal in the downhill, a race totally dominated by American and Canadian skiers.
''This could be the start of a new decade in which North America is the dominant factor,'' silver medal winner Nelson said after the US and Canada placed three women each in the top 10. Austria and Switzerland had only one each.
The host Austrians failed to win a goal medal until the next to last race, the men's downhill, but then Harti Weirather streaked to a spectacular triumph tomaintain his nation's traditional dominance back to win the concluding event. Stenmark bounced back to win the concluding event, the men's slalom, as the United States missed its chance for even more glory when both Mahre twins hooked gates and failed to finish. Michael Vion of France won the apline compined
Stenmark, a double Olympic gold medalist at Lake Placid in 1980 and the man generally considered the world's top skier over the past several years, had been favored for the slalom gold after being forced to settle for silver in the giant slalom, with Both Mahre twins among his top challenger.
Switzerland had the most gold medal (3) plus two silvers for five overall, while the United States matched that total with one gold three medals each were Sweden (1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze) and Austria (1,0,2). capturing two apiece were France (1,1,0), Canada (1,0,1) and Yugoslavia (0,1,1). Italy and Liechtenstein had one bronze apiece.