McKinney weathers a trying year with US women's ski team

Three years ago she was judged the planet's fastest female on skis: America's first overall World Cup women's champion. Two years ago she was World Cup slalom champion. Last year: the World Cup slalom runner-up. This year, however, five days before the season's final scheduled race, Tamara McKinney was struggling to preserve a tie for 24th in overall World Cup points. Her best finish in any race all winter was a fifth. For the US Ski Team, and especially for McKinney, it has been a dismal season. There were new coaches to work with, and the adjustment did not always go smoothly. Furthermore, the weather problems that annually shatter the World Cup racing schedule were even worse than usual.

These are things that all the racers must deal with, of course, but Tamara has had some special challenges -- many of them relating to leadership.

``I don't want to be the voice of America. That isn't my bag,'' said the 23-year-old racer, who started building an international reputation when she was only 16. This was another of the season's ``canceled race days.'' We were sitting in an inn called the Snowy Owl, which could have been called the Soggy Duck from the way the rain and wind beat upon the windows. Tamara, the seasoned, yet so youthful veteran, took it all in stride.

She refrained from talking about the team's estrangement with the new coaches, although it is commonly assumed that head women's coach, Brad Ghent, will be replaced. (He did not even appear at the giant slalom or the season's final slalom here.) But McKinney did talk about the changes affecting this talented group of young ski racers since veteran team leaders Cindy Nelson and Christin Cooper retired last year and in 1984, respectively.

``There was a time when [the team] came together; it was sort of a force,'' she said. ``This year, everyone seemed to go off in all different directions.'' McKinney even saw the team's injury problems, which sidelined giant slalom gold medalists Debbie Armstrong ('84 Olympics), and Diann Roffe ('85 World Championships) most of this season as somehow linked to the team's lack of cohesiveness.

McKinney talked about how important it had always been for different members of the team to pick up the burden ``when you couldn't quite reach the ceiling by yourself.''

``No matter what level you're at, you can't make it alone. Everybody wakes up in the morning a person first. There are some days you don't have that confidence in yourself, and that's really important.''

This year, more than ever before perhaps, McKinney may have found the burden of being ``team leader'' -- perhaps even ``team spokeswoman,'' as in this interview -- resting all too squarely on her 5 ft. 4 in., 117-pound frame. ``This year, I was the voice of America, and I didn't like it,'' she acknowledged.

The solution for the US team, she says, is ``happiness,'' an upbeat response to problems with coaches and training approaches that McKinney acknowledges began last year, but became full blown this season. Noting that sports performance at the international level is at least 50 percent mental and that ``you have to be prepared to challenge yourself each year,'' she added: ``There's also a little bit of magic every now and then that touches somebody. When you're with somebody who has it, you can almost feel it.''

And how does a Tamara McKinney reclaim that ``magic'' and recharge a stalled career? In the past, she has shown herself to be especially sensitive to the handling of coaches and trainers, somewhat like the fine horses she jumps and rides at the Lexington, Ky., farm her family owns.

McKinney appears to be considering options now carefully, measuredly. She doesn't rule out retiring from competition, but you get the feeling it's not likely.

``There's some good skiing left in me,'' she laughed. ``I need to take a break. It's been a long and tiring year, and I don't want to make any decisions when I'm down, or anything like that.'' She says her brother, Steve, who has held the world speed skiing record, is assembling a summer expedition to Tibet that includes a hang-gliding attempt off Mt. Everest at about 26,000 feet. ``I would love to go,'' she says, perhaps as a TV commentator for a related program being planned.

Would she eventually be interested in a television career? ``Not as an actress,'' she smiled. ``I don't have the patience to spend an hour while people tint my face.''

She also talks about taking college courses in San Diego, and training on the beach this summer. Bright and articulate, she had to halt her academic education after high school as do most world-class ski racers. But she obviously has not stopped learning.

``You can't win all the time, and the sooner you learn that, the easier it is,'' she says. She indicates that although she seemed to lose confidence this year, sometimes ``the harder times make you appreciate the good ones.'' Wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt that had just arrived in an Easter basket from home, she shows a keen appreciation of her family's support, which includes her two brothers and four sisters.

``My family has had its ups and downs,'' she mused. ``But I think we're tight. That's helped all of us be strong.''

She says there are parallels between being an accomplished equestrian, which she also is, and a successful ski racer. Concentration, depth perception, balance, and strength are required in both sports, she notes. ``Also important is not fighting the horse, and not fighting the mountain because they're both bigger than you are.''

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