Girardelli's all-around skill recalls Killy; lean year for US team

The toughest part of a long sports season may not be the emotion-charged playoffs, when the cameras are whirring and everybody's looking. The hard part may come on a dark day of midseason obscurity, when intense desire does not come easily. At least, that's the impression emanating from ski racing's globe-trotting World Cup circus, which is about to enter the final third of its winter-long chase to determine who are the planet's fastest skiers (male and female). With competition now back in full swing after countless weather-related race cancellations -- and after the two-week February break for the various national championships -- several developments are worth noting.

Marc Girardelli, who skis for Luxembourg but comes from Austria via Italy, may be the best all-around ski racer since Jean-Claude Killy. The defending slalom, giant slalom, and overall World Cup champion got a second in last Saturday's downhill. Thus another astonishing downhill run gives this skier, who used to be known mainly for his ability to carve around slalom poles, an important lead in the overall World Cup standings. He is also third in the giant slalom standings, closing in on the top five in downhill points and leaving everybody behind in the combined standings. Ironically, he is not among this season's top 15 slalom racers as he concentrates on elevating his downhill skills.

Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland, the 1984 champion, is not only good but tough. Coming back from an injury that sidelined him earlier this winter, Zurbriggen has moved up to third in the overall standings. He won his first 1986 World Cup race Sunday in a steep slalom at Are, Sweden, that allowed only 28 of some 97 starters to finish.

Not one American completed the race. In fact, it was another depressing weekend for the US Ski Team, which has been taking its familiar non-Olympic-year lumps again. The best finish in Saturday's downhill was Bill Johnson's 19th. Doug Lewis missed a gate.

World Cup points scored by Americans this winter are so dismal, in fact, that cries for coaching changes are beginning to be heard among the racer and racer-chaser fraternity. Among the talent-rich US women, the highest World Cup standing is Eva Twardokens's 10th in the super-giant slalom. The 1983 World Cup champion, Tamara McKinney, hasn't won a race and is in 17th place going into this weekend's downhill and ``super-G'' at Furano, Japan. Besides the rumblings about coaching problems, the team lost Olympic gold medalist Debbie Armstrong for the season via injury. The '85 giant slalom world champion, Diann Roffe, has also been sidelined with an injury. It's a fervent hope that she'll be ready when the tour hits North America the second week in March.

That's when the Americans usually shine -- on home snow. Meanwhile, the women must put their coaching traumas behind them and reconvene their concentration. The US men must forget about their lack of depth and get Lewis (16th in downhill standings), Johnson, Tiger Shaw (24th in slalom), and Felix McGrath to ski up to their capabilities. And everyone must get beyond the February blahs. It's bargain shopping time

Some of the discount air fares to the Rockies are really incredible now. People Express will not only fly you from the East Coast to Denver for $79, but you can also fly on to Jackson Hole, Wyo., and the fare is still $79. In Europe there's a deal that allows two Lufthansa passengers traveling together to get an Avis rental car free for a week. That gives skiers a number of options between Bavaria and the Austrian Alps. Balair, the Swissair charter and tour group subsidiary, has one-week packages, including round-trip air from New York, ground transfers, lodging, and breakfast and dinner at a three-star hotel for as low as $655 at a non-glitzy resort like Engelburg, $675 at Davos. But check over the hotels carefully before committing yourself to ensure no unwanted surprises.

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