TO the casual observer who tunes into ski racing only during Olympic years, the downhill race victory by Alaskan Tommy Moe was a shock. But to those like Lex Patten, who meticulously tracked Moe's long climb on the World Cup circuit, the success of Girdwood's favorite son was no surprise.
About a decade ago, Moe was a fresh-faced teenager, new to Alaska and its isolated race circuit, while Patten was a seasoned member of the University of Alaska at Anchorage ski team.
``I could barely stay ahead of him,'' said Patten, who later became Moe's coach at Alyeska Resort here and eventually spent three seasons coaching the United States Team on the World Cup circuit.
``As soon as he showed up, it was clear about his talents. He was competing with kids 10 years older, and he wasn't thinking: `I'm the best in my age group.' He was always looking at the front of the page.'' (Olympic coverage, Page 16.)
It is also little surprise to close observers - like Patten, now back coaching and raising a family in Anchorage - that the US Ski Team's best recent downhill results have come from here. Alaska is known in national ski circles for producing top speed-event skiers accustomed to adverse conditions.
That may explain Moe's initial reaction Feb. 13 when he was invited to meet Hillary Rodham Clinton: He confused the first lady with Juneau's Hilary Lindh, the 24-year-old silver medalist in the 1992 Olympic downhill and top US woman skier in the speed events of downhill and giant slalom (super G).
Other top Alaskan Alpine skiers are Anchorage's Megan Gerety, 22, Moe's girlfriend and herself a World Cup podium contender in the super G and downhill; Mike Makar, 21, the 1992 world junior downhill champion; and 17-year-old Kjersti Bjorn-Roli, one of North America's top junior skiers.
They were toughened by Alyeska, a steep, mostly treeless mountain that towers over a sea-level fjord, and by Alaskan conditions that make trivial the groomed, tourist-destination resorts of the lower 48.
``This mountain is demanding. You can have powder at the top and rain at the bottom and all conditions in between,'' said Patten, sitting in the race headquarters at the foot of the peak.
There are also irregular, glacier-carved fall lines throughout the wide-open mountain. Subzero temperatures alternate with warm Prince William Sound fog.
And there is the weak, brief midwinter Alaska daylight: ``It's brutal,'' says Patten. ``It's totally flat. You can't see anything.''
Television reports continually refer to Palmer, a town located about 80 miles north of here and the home of Moe's parents. But Girdwood, nestled in mountains about 40 miles south of downtown Anchorage, is where the 24-year-old Moe lives, attended high school, and perfected his skiing technique.
This rustic community of 1,000 is a blend of hard-core skiers, Alaskan yuppies, and free spirits who, if not recognized as pillars of local society, might be mistaken for refugees from a Grateful Dead concert tour (hence, the locals' nickname - ``Girdweirdians'').
Throughout Alaska, but especially here, the effervescent Moe has long been adored. His following was well-established five years ago, when he dominated the World Junior Alpine Championships held here and was swarmed by pint-sized autograph-seekers.
Now that he has Olympic gold, Moe's charm is increasingly viewed as holding commercial value.
Little-known to many Olympic viewers was an off-the-slope competition linked to the downhill event in Norway. By edging Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt by 4/100 of a second - and by displaying the sockeye salmon painted on his helmet - Moe struck a blow for the battered Alaska fishing industry.
In the past 15 years, the world market share of Alaskan salmon has dropped to about 30 percent from about 40 percent, eroded by the booming farmed-salmon industry. Alaska salmon prices have, likewise, dwindled.
Meanwhile, Norway became the world's top exporter of farmed salmon, and Norway's top skiers have been sponsored by that nation's salmon promoters.
Last fall, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), the state agency that promotes Alaska fish, gambled on a $50,000 sponsorship of Moe. Some commercial fishermen complained, saying it was unwise to spend state money and fish-tax revenues only to have the ``Alaska Seafood'' logo whiz by TV cameras at speeds in excess of 70 miles an hour.
The doubts appeared erased by Feb. 14, when congratulations poured into ASMI's Juneau headquarters.
``I think we've gotten a phone call from everybody who has a brother-in-law who sells shoes ... who has a marketing idea,'' an exhausted Kim Elton, ASMI's executive director, said Feb. 14.
``It's been a busy, busy day,'' he said.