Peter Shelton

Mastering space and time

Posted in Olympic Games, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on December 9, 2010

Last weekend was a very good one for American ski racers skiing on American (at least North American) snow.

Up in Alberta, Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso put on a show in the speed events. Vonn finished second in two consecutive downhills, to her good buddy and chief rival Maria Riesch of Germany, then won Sunday’s Super G just ahead of Riesch with Mancuso third. Julia finished fourth and sixth in the two downhills.

At Beaver Creek, the U.S. men didn’t fare so well. The downhill got cancelled due to wind. In the Super G all of the top Americans were ambushed by the same small bump and missed the next gate. One after the other. Keystone cops. Looked like a coaching/inspection/line error to me.

But then on Sunday, Ted Ligety of Park City won the giant slalom for his first World Cup victory on home soil. Er, snow.

Both tall, blonde Vonn and dark-haired Riesch are dominating their tour, have been for the past three years. Funny, though, the images of Vonn don’t look dominating. I know, that’s a stupid thing to say. She’s winning, or coming close, in just about every speed event. But, in still photographs, her position looks a little desperate: her head is tipped, the eyes aren’t level with the horizon; her hand is flying up; she’s leaning in more than she’s angulating; the skis are off the snow.

Bode Miller can be wild, as we know, and still be fast. He doesn’t finish many races these days. When I think of dominant skiing, I think of skiers in gorgeous control of all the forces acting on them painting their way down a blank canvas.

In World Cup history, that would mean Austrian apfelstrudel Annemarie Pröll, who won 62 races in the 1970s, and an unmatched six overall titles.

Or Marc Girardelli, an Austrian who spatted with the home team and went off to race for micro-nation Luxembourg. Austria wished they’d kept him because he won five overall titles, the most ever for a man, through the 1980s and 90s. I saw Girardelli and Alberto Tomba take silver and gold in the most photogenic, backlit, rocket-exhaust GS at the Albertville Olympics in 1992. Tomba had to be piano-mover perfect to edge Girardelli, and he was.

No one was perfect more often than unsmiling Swede Ingemar Stenmark, whose 86 World Cup victories may never be equaled. (Vonn has 34, Bode 32.) More than the numbers, he was so fun to watch because he seemed so precisely on his feet, in command and out in front.

In a perverse sort of way, it was something the rest of us could aspire to. We couldn’t all have Phil Mahre’s Captain America brute strength. We couldn’t all be cat burglars like Killy. But maybe, we thought, we could at least try and understand Ingemar’s draftsman-like precision.

The most dominant ski racer I’ve ever seen was Croatian Janica Kostelic in Salt Lake City where she took three golds and a silver at the 2002 Games. Her career ended at age 24, but she rang up monster numbers, nonetheless. She is the only woman to win four alpine medals at a single Olympics. She won five World Championships, and added a fourth Olympic gold in 2006. She won the World Cup overall three times and set the record for most points in a season.

In Salt Lake, Jimmy Pettegrew and I watched from the stands as Janica (sounds like pizza), just 20 and still relatively unknown, in pigtails, won the combined with a solid downhill and two steely, matchless runs of slalom. Next she took a surprise silver in the Super G. We saw her in person next in the slalom, where she gritted out a win on a deteriorating track in a snowstorm.

We didn’t have tickets to her last race, the giant slalom, but we made sure to catch it that night on TV. It’s still the most beautiful skiing I’ve ever seen. I cut a still from that race out of the next day’s Tribune and have it pinned to the wall above my desk.

It’s the second run. Janica’s the last of the top-30 racers down the hill, having taken the first run lead. She’s in full flight passing a gate on her left. The forces at play are terrific: the obvious speed, the bending of the skis, the powerful resistance of the straightened right leg; her left hip is an inch off the snow. But there is absolutely nothing desperate in the picture.

Her hands are relaxed and out front as if offering a tray of light snacks. Her head is level, her gaze calm and well down the hill. And here’s the kicker, she’s smiling. This mastery of space and time is complete. And she knows it.

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