The Best of the Worst

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So, this article went to Ski Racing and I think it ended up on their website. For anyone who ever wondered “what happened?” in ’88, here’s at least part of the answer.

The Best of the Worst
Here’s a safe prediction: The US Ski Team will like Vancouver better than Calgary.
By Edie Thys Morgan

My claim to fame, should I ever be desperate enough to want one, is that I was the best US skier at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. That achievement is better remembered in less flattering terms as, “the best the US could muster,” because the US Ski Team was coming off its most successful Olympics a mere four years earlier. Recently, I told my sister I wanted to write about the ‘88 experience and wasn’t sure what to call the article. “How about ‘Loser?’” she brightly suggested.

I’m pretty sure there was more to it than that, but I am still trying to figure out how one team went from winning five medals in Sarajevo, to being the only US ski team in the past 34 years to win no medals. It wasn’t talent—six of the athletes in Calgary won Olympic and WC medals in their careers. Many of the coaches, too, had previous or future success. Did we not train hard enough? I have the pictures to disprove that. Was it money? Again, the ski team coffers were much fuller in 88 than in 84. Our demise wasn’t the consequence of any one thing, but rather a combination of circumstances, a perfect storm on all fronts of bad luck, bad decisions and inexperience.

The summer before the Olympics, we still considered our medal chances to be pretty good. Sure, the big guns from the early 80’s had retired, but we still had World Cup Overall winner Tamara McKinney and gold medalist Debbie Armstrong. After two disastrous (and, we later realized, critical) years of athlete mismanagement and coaching blunders nearly caused a mass mutiny in 1986, a good crew was in place beneath a respected, experienced coach from the golden Eighties era. Relations with the equipment companies, badly damaged in the two-year leadership vacuum, had been mostly repaired.

Meanwhile, we relative youngsters were coming up slowly, and a few—like Eva Twardokens and Diann Roffe had come up very quickly. The alpine director of the moment (we went through them like Chapstick) referred to us as a “young inexperienced team.” He never further explained that our inexperience was a direct consequence of a ski team policy in place well before 1984 that had effectively decimated the entire tier of B team athletes. But that’s another story.

Nevertheless, we were naively optimistic, even in July when Debbie broke her leg wrestling with a teammate in Argentina. She’d be physically ready for the Olympics, but only barely. Then things got dicey. In November, during our last stateside tune up, Tamara broke her ankle. She too might be healed by February, but again with no training. “What else can go wrong?” I heard our head coach asking nobody in particular. If he only knew.

We headed over to Europe, the “speed” team (that is, those of us who raced the downhill and super G events) for some final training in Austria and the “technical team” (slalom and giant slalom specialists) straight to Italy for the opening slalom. On Thanksgiving Day, while the turkey cooked in our hotel’s kitchen, we excitedly settled in to watch the opening race. Eva, who had won a bronze medal in the 1985 World Champs as a pup of 17 was our first racer. We cheered as she burst out of the gate. Moments later we heard her scream as she disappeared in a puff of snow. She reappeared on the ground, clutching her blown out knee.

When we joined the technical team in Italy for the opening super G, a small miracle happened. I scored a seventh placed from “out of nowhere” as the press likes to say. Really, there is no such thing. Breakthrough performances are the natural progression, when work pays off, and things come together. The coaches leveraged my result into a motivational moment. This, they assured us, was our opportunity to step up and show the naysayers (and there were many) what this new generation could do. We pushed on to Leukerbad, a resort tucked high into the Swiss Alps where sparse snow conditions, sharp terrain and constant shadows made for a deceivingly treacherous course. Our entire team performed disastrously.

If we were frustrated the coaches were moreso, and that night we got “the speech,” about just how far behind the world we lagged. “Forget about the Swiss, Germans and Austrians,” our coach began. “The French are ahead of us, the Canadians, the Yugoslavians…” He went down the list, finishing with, “the Litchensteinians!” That hurt, considering their entire team included one racer.

Still riding a wave of confidence after the super G, I mistook this for a pep talk, but when I looked up I saw bowed heads and red eyes. The next day I waited a long time in the start, largely ignoring the whop, whop, whop of a helicopter airlifting a racer from the course. I was so focused on my run that I didn’t even notice when our trainer disappeared.

After a somewhat harrowing but fast run I enthusiastically radioed a course report to the girls in the start. Only then did I notice that two teammates already in the finish were white as ghosts. Nick Howe, the writer who traveled with us looked as if he might be ill. The helicopter had been for my teammate and good friend, Tori Pillinger. She had swung wide on the final gate, wrapping her body around the metal finishing post at 60 plus miles per hour.

Two teammates saw the grisly scene in person, and the rest of them saw it on TV from the mountain lodge, before their runs. Thanks to helicopters, great hospitals and excellent doctors, Tori survived. Our team, however, never fully recovered. A few of us who could have celebrated personal bests in the countdown to the Olympics, instead tread lightly amidst frayed tempers and fragile egos. We limped through January and after the final downhill (and another injury to Adele Allender) in Bad Gastein, the Olympic team was quietly announced.

Once in Calgary, the throng of media attention and medal hype again boosted our hopes. Miracles do happen, so why not here? Why not us? After getting our Olympic uniforms, credentials and gear, we checked in to our temporary digs at the Olympic Village and marched in the Opening Ceremonies to deafening cheers. For that moment at least, we all felt proud.

And then the Games began. We moved to our on site housing that the USST had arranged closer to the Alpine events. The Swiss had booked up the one luxury slopeside hotel for their athletes, coaches, masseuses, and—no lie– hairstylists. All that was left, we were told, was the trailer park. We stayed two to a trailer, tromping through the snow to a communal shower. When ABC did a special showing the Swiss dining on white linen and us roasting hot dogs over a bonfire, the sponsors went berserk. Miraculously, rooms in slopeside homes occupied by VIPs materialized. But by then the term “trailer park trash ” was stuck in our psyches.

On the morning of the downhill race when Pam Fletcher, our top ranked downhiller, crashed into a course worker and broke her leg, we barely flinched. It was, as they say, all downhill from there.
Maybe that all explains why, despite all the negative attention we received from those Games, when I came down from my super G run and placed 9th amongst the best skiers in the world, I didn’t feel like a failure. I felt like a survivor.