SPORTS

Less than a blink of an eye

After a glorious season it all came down to 28/100ths of a second in Aspen

Hal Quinn March 16 1981
SPORTS

Less than a blink of an eye

After a glorious season it all came down to 28/100ths of a second in Aspen

Hal Quinn March 16 1981

Less than a blink of an eye

SPORTS

After a glorious season it all came down to 28/100ths of a second in Aspen

Hal Quinn

They stood facing each other at the bottom of a mountain in Aspen, Colo., last Friday. One had just experienced what the other had a year before. One supported himself with crutches planted firmly in the snow, the other with an indomitable spirit. Their eyes blinked rapidly, words became useless and they embraced.

Ithad been the most torturous week in the life of young Steve Podborski, and his friend and injured team-mate, Ken Read, understood the unspoken. Not only do they share the unique world of downhill racing but now, in turn, they had reached the threshold of becoming the first North American men to be crowned World Cup downhill champions in the final race of the year. For both, any crowning would have to wait another season. Podborski had come to Aspen as the leader in the downhill chase, with races Thursday and Friday the arbiters of immortality or consolation. In 28/100ths of a second, less than a blink of an eye, Podborski’s quest was ended.

In the end, Podborski’s incredible season, in which he won three consecutive races, finished third in another three and was never out of the top ten (the best-ever performance by a Canadian male), was dependent on the weather. Four furious weeks prior to the World Cup finale—two races rather than one because of a weather-cancelled event in Schladming, Austria, Feb. 8— organizers had transported snow-making equipment from as far away as New Jersey to blanket the barren Rockies. But Monday brought real snow and everything from the $595,000 price tags on three-bedroom condominiums to the racecourse was obliterated. The storm finally relented, but not before softening the course that Podborski so wanted to be hard.

He needed to win or finish second ahead of his rival Harti Weirather of Austria in either race. Thursday dawned clear but warm, and as the racers careered down the mountain, at speeds exceeding 100 km per hour, the new snow broke up, thus slowing if not endangering the skiers. Weirather was the eighth down the course, Podborski drew start number 10. It didn’t matter. “If you saw the videotape of my run, you’d be surprised that I’m standing here talking to you,” Podborski laughed after the race. “I was so far off line I made tracks where no one else will go this week.”

Feigning calmness, Podborski had maintained a “qué será será” attitude prior to the race. If the burden of racing pressure was not enough, he was also still suffering physical and psychological pain from a head-on car crash on a mountain road in British Columbia 20 days earlier. “Yeah it was Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of my bronze

medal at Lake Placid. Next year I think I’ll just stay in bed.” Podborski rounded a curve to find a car coming at him in his lane. He expected the other driver to react, but finally he turned into the lefthand lane—just as the other did so. They crashed and then slammed into the embankment. “My first thought was that ‘I’ve made it.’ Then I thought that whoever is in the other car must be dead.” Both cars were demolished. “There was a ripple running front to back on mine. [Two young women are still hospitalized.] All the windows were broken and I reached in and turned off the radio which was still blaring away.”

The physical shock was considerable, but Podborski’s psyche also received a jolt. Andrzej Kozbial, director of the Canadian Alpine Ski Program, said bef^e Thursday’s race: “Steve has been through a lot of things recently and it could be that we don’t have the real boy here. I know he will give it all he has, but you have to wonder.”

Wincing slightly, Podborski said: “I’m still quite sore through my upper back and neck and have difficulty holding up my head in the tuck position. But I won’t use that as an excuse. It’s just another thing I have to deal with.” When he finished his run Thursday Podborski slammed to a halt, threw his ski poles away in disgust, wrapped his arms across his chest and bent down staring at his skis. His time was dismal, 10th best. Weirather had finished second and was now ahead on the eve of the final race.

“No, no, I feel fine,” Podborski said at the mountain base, avoiding once again the solace of the car accident excuse and in the next breath finally revealing the intensity of his quest. “I tried too hard, I just tried to go too fast. I cut into the first gates too sharply, about six inches, and couldn’t recover. Now I have to win tomorrow.”

After rising at 6 a.m. Podborski looked out, and as he recalled later: “I felt born again.” The predicted storm had not reached Aspen. He had drawn the first starting position for the last race; new snow would have slowed the course for early skiers and given later starters—including Weirather at 14th—an advantage. Said Podborski: “I knew the course would be hard and fast and I thought I might be able to do something.” What he did was script one of the most dramatic races in World Cup history.

In the brilliant sunshine high above the lofty opulence of Aspen, Podborski poled out of the starting gate. He corrected his folly of the previous day (“I’ll have to delay my cuts by about six milliseconds,”) but not entirely. “Did I ever have trouble at Aztec [a turn high on the mountain], I crossed my skis right up and sliced them apart.” Yet his intermediate time was 1:14:87, fully 1.59 seconds faster than the previous day. As he bolted across the finish line, he was 1.86 seconds better and 46/100ths of a second faster than Thursday’s winner, Valery Tsyganof of the Soviet Union. Podborski did not discard his poles, nor stare downcast. He glided gently off to the side of the finish area, casually removed his helmet and gloves, looked up the mountain—and waited. Having cast aside the pain and pressure he had done what only the dreamers hoped he could do, and now he could do no more.

The voice of the announcer at the finish line echoed the names of his rivals, legends and future stars—Klammer, Mueller, Grissman, Wirnsberger—and their intermediate times. None had negotiated the upper flats as quickly as Podborski nor tucked through the finish threatening his 1:52:49 time. Then the announcer said, “Weirather is on the course.” As Podborski waited, Weirather’s intermediate time rang out: “1:14:95,” 8/100ths of a second slower than Podborski. Weirather had been told Podborski’s time before he started. “It made me very nervous,” he said after. Knowing that Podborski had skied the difficult lower half of the course extremely well, Weirather had to pick up time there.

He flashed across the finish line and fell exhausted. His time was announced. Podborski gathered his poles, skied over, shook the World Cup champion’s hand and the two friends smiled and embraced.

“Oh, it’s a beautiful finish. One of those storybook things,” Podborski said. Then he blinked.