Jim Galanes: the indomitable snowman of cross-country skiing

''Why does he always have to be so serious?'' was the photographer's comment when Jim Galanes skied past us without even the suggestion of a smile for the camera.

The scene was West Yellowstone, Montana, where the nation's top cross-country skiers were vying late last fall for a spot on the national team and the season's first trip to Europe. Jim had already been named to the team, thanks to his strong international showing the year before. But he took part in the tryout race all the same, skiing twice the distance required as if his whole future were on the line.

And in a way it was, along with many years of dedicated training that had gone before, which may explain why he's so serious. It's been 11 years since Galanes, then 17, first signed on with the US National Team program. Though initially a Nordic Combined competitor (cross-country skiing and jumping), he has specialized in cross-country since 1978 when his enormous potential in that area started becoming apparent.

So far, only one US cross-country ski racer has succeeded in becoming a household name in this country: Bill Koch, a fellow Vermonter who won an Olympic silver medal in 1976, and in 1982 became the first American ever to win the World Cup crown, much less an individual Cup race. And now at long last it seems entirely possible that Jim Galanes may be ready to clamber out of obscurity as well.

By the end of the US team's first trip to Europe in December, Jim led the rest of the team in total World Cup points with ninth- and tenth-place finishes in the first two races of the series. No other American, including Koch, wound up in the top 15. In a sport with as many unpredictable elements as cross-country, anyone who consistently places in the top 15 internationally has to be considered a potential Olympic medal winner. This will be especially true at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, where clashing weather fronts can cause sudden and drastic changes in temperature, thereby wreaking havoc with waxing and paving the way for dark horses to come out on top.

Though Galanes is pleased on the whole with the season's first results, there's a tinge of dissatisfaction as well. ''Before the race at Reit-Im-Winkl, West Germany (where he finished ninth), I was prepared to go out, ski hard, and do well. I realize now that I should have prepared with the idea of going out and winning. I was only a minute out of first. Even 15 seconds faster would have pulled me up four or five places. I made good time on the uphills but was too relaxed on the flats and easier sections of the course.''

When I relayed Jim's disappointment to Nordic Program Director Jim Page, he laughed. ''If Jim were to win an Olympic gold medal, he'd give a half-hour dissertation on all the mistakes he made.'' Then on a more serious note, he added, ''One of Jim's problems in the past is that he put enormous pressure on himself to perform at a level that was almost unreasonable. Frankly, we'd rather have him finishing eighth or ninth right now than first, because it would just put that much more pressure on him.

''Basically, though, Jim's never gotten the season off to such a good start. Right now we feel he's exactly where he needs to be and that he's going to continue building. He's definitely within range of the top three at Sarajevo.''

Page calls Jim's dedication his major asset as a racer. ''He decided several years ago that he'd do whatever it took to become good internationally. He's gone on to train harder than anyone else ever has. He's also decided not to work , and instead live at a subsistence level.''

To facilitate training, Jim and his wife Lynn, one of the top women on the US team, recently moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where Lynn grew up and where they have access to snow year-round.

One of her brothers frequently flies them to the house-sized tent they've erected on the edge of Eagle Glacier. After training there for a week or two, Jim and Lynn generally hike out on their own.

It's a landscape that seems suited to Jim's nature as something of a loner. With her cheeriness and upbeat outlook, however, Lynn has been a steadying influence on the sometimes moody and intensely private Jim. ''It's easy to misunderstand Jim,'' Page observes. ''He's a very, very shy individual. In the past year or two, though, he seems to have settled down, to be more at ease and able to communicate. I think people are finally beginning to appreciate the depth of character that's there.''

While Lynn is uncertain at this point about how long she'll continue with the National Team, Jim would like to keep going for as long as he continues to improve. ''The only thing that might stop me,'' he admits, ''is the money angle.''

The ''challenge of getting it all together,'' however, keeps him coming back year after year in a sport with no financial incentive and no public recognition. ''There are so many things to improve on that you're never bored. Figuring out when to rest and when to train and then how hard to train. The whole thing keeps you coming back, hoping that next time you'll do it right.''

High achievement in the Olympics is the tip of the iceberg. People often don't appreciate the years of preparation that go into one top-rate performance. This is especially true in a sport like cross-country skiing, where world-class racers ordinarily take at laast a decade to develop.

As far as training goes, Galanes has more than paid his dues. He's feeling stronger than ever - and more confident. If he stays on schedule, this February in Sarajevo he may just do it right.

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