McKinney finds spark as World Cup season enters stretch drive

Defending World Cup champion Tamara McKinney of the United States had just won her first international ski race of the season. There were smiles and hugs and a tangible feeling of release, as if someone had just let the air out of an overpressurized balloon.

From here on out, McKinney grinned, ''Whether I ski well or not, my humor is back.''

McKinney and her American teammates are discovering how to survive the media and success. Until fairly recently, US ski racers had about the same attention from their home country's press as bird watchers. Phil Mahre's three consecutive World Cups and Tamara's World Cup win last season stimulated interest to some extent, and now it has really peaked in the wake of all those medals at the Winter Olympics (gold for Debbie Armstrong, Bill Johnson, and Phil Mahre, plus silver for Christin Cooper and Steve Mahre).

The media attention has been so overwhelming on Armstrong, in fact, that she had to leave the World Cup tour 10 days ago and return home to her family in Seattle. ''She had to get her head together because she was just totally burnt out,'' said a team spokesman. ''She just wasn't prepared for dealing with the incredible attention that comes with winning a gold medal.''

McKinney, who has been skiing well but not winning all winter - she often finishes in the top four, as she did in the Olympic giant slalom - put it this way: ''Starting last summer, there has been 10 times the media attention I've ever had to deal with before. And there was no one around to help me avoid it.''

Laughing, she quickly changed ''avoid'' to ''deal with,'' betraying what she might have wished but now realizes is impossible. In the past few months there have been cover stories in Time and Sports Illustrated, not to mention other profiles in national magazines, several of which she considers derogatory.

The pressure of so much being expected of America's first woman World Cup champion, as focused by a demanding media, has made the 21-year-old racer and accomplished equestrian ''really tired of expectations,'' she said.

''I'm a little more aware of how to handle it now,'' McKinney explained. During the past year she ''felt like I was just constantly talking, giving out about my feelings about skiing and about everything. When it came time to go out on the hill, I felt just drained. Too much was going on, and I just didn't have that spark, that energy I should have.''

Once back in North America, the grueling travel schedule of the World Cup circuit eased up, and McKinney had time to get her thoughts together. ''I'm gaining strength physically,'' she told a television interviewer here. ''But ski racing is such a mental sport, such a sport of confidence, you just have to be able to block everything out on race day - the snow conditions, the weather, everything.''

Here this past weekend, on the same mountain where she began the charge a year ago that led to her World Cup triumph, Tamara ''blocked out everything'' for four straight runs - two in Saturday's slalom and two in Sunday's giant slalom. When it was over and she had won both races, she said she had regained her confidence as well as her humor. For the first time, perhaps, in this whole difficult winter, she said she felt ''eager and psyched to race.''

The watershed occurred at the start of the first run of the slalom. This has been her best event all year, she said, but she hadn't been able to put two good runs together back to back. ''I just needed to get it all out - the aggression, everything,'' she told reporters. So she said she skied that first run more ''wild'' than ''intelligently,'' and it worked.

While Tamara's two victories here moved her up from fifth to fourth in the overall World Cup standings, she was still 67 points behind 1982 champion Erika Hess of Switzerland, who leads the field with 234 points as the tour returns to Europe for the final two slaloms and three giant slaloms.

Meanwhile Cooper, who would really like to win the cup in what probably is her final year of racing, is also very much in contention - just behind McKinney in fifth place with 161 points. The Olympic giant slalom silver medalist and mainstay of the team for several years had the fastest second run of the field in both the slalom and giant slalom here. Now, she must get that same energy in her first run, where her relatively slow times here left her far enough behind that even those spectacular second runs lifted her only to sixth and third place respectively.

With West Germany's Irene Epple out for the season with an injury, and Liechtenstein's Hanni Wenzel not in top form due to a knee injury, the women's stretch drive is shaping into a three-way race among Hess, McKinney, and Cooper. Each of them is now racing superbly, and although Hess's lead will be difficult to overcome in the five remaining races, the complicated World Cup scoring system is such that either of the American challengers could still do it. The winner, in fact, apparently will be the one member of the trio who can best ''block everything else out'' and call on that little extra reserve of energy for two runs, back to back.

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