The 1982 World Ski Championships was a tale of two cities,
Haus and Schladming, Austria. And for the Canadians who were there it was the best of times and the worst of times. Gerry Sorensen, a Canadian National team member for just two seasons, carried away the women’s downhill gold medal while Steve Podborski and Ken Read, who for nine years have been digging for gold, once again went home with nothing. “I hit it right on,” said Sorensen after she had beaten the alpine girls at their own game, the downhill.
The two European favorites, the leggy Swiss veteran, Doris de Agostini, and the host country heroine,,
Connie Proell, were out of the medals. Ahead of them were “the girls from across the Atlantic.” Cindy Nelson, of Reno, Nev., was second, Laurie Graham, from the flatlands of Inglewood,
Ont., was third and Dianne Lehodey, of Calgary, was fifth. “It’s just the beginning of a new wave,” said Nelson.
The Canadian world champion, the first since Nancy Greene in 1968 and the first in downhill since Lucile Wheeler in 1958, is not only a product of her own willpower but also of a backup team of all-Canadian coaches, doctors and equipment servicing. (The men’s team employs several Europeans, the U.S. team uses Europeans exclusively.)
In the fall of 1978 while trying for the first time to make the national team, Sorensen suffered a painful spill, tearing a knee cartilage, and the Canadian team no longer showed interest in her. However, her father’s support, both psychological and financial, carried her through the following season with the British Columbia provincial team. And it was in a race in the spring of 1980 in California that Sorensen once again came to the attention of those who had spurned her. She had beaten some world-class racers and Canada wanted her back.
Sorensen returned and was in Europe only months later for her first World
Cup season. Although she made no impact in her debut, she soon made her presence felt: 13th and fifth in downhills at Megève, France, and then, a week later, a triumph at Haus. In what is widely considered the greatest upset in world-class skiing, Sorensen plunged down the hill to victory from start position 30. The three previous leaders were gathering on the podium to accept their awards—until Sorensen’s time was flashed. The Swiss, Marie-Theres Nadig, who that season dominated the women’s downhill, turned in surprise and asked, “Who is that girl, what does she look like?”
She looks like a winner for years to come. At 23, Sorensen is still fresh to the sport and, unlike many downhillers of that age, she can look forward not only to the Sarajevo Olympics in two years, but also to those in 1988 in the Canadian Rockies. If Sorensen is the crest of this new Canadian wave, there is much depth beneath her: Graham, 21,
Lehodey, 21, Shanne Leavitt of Calgary, 20, Lynda Robbins of Toronto, 19, and the skier who some say is the brightest hope of all—British Columbian Dee Dee Haight, only 17 and already Europa Cup champion.
The Canadian men do not enjoy such promise. For the veterans, these were to be their championships on what they, and their opponents, had taken to calling “The Canadian Downhill.” On Saturday ownership reverted to Austria. Harti Weirather, a farmer’s son from the Tyrol, answered his countrymen’s fortnight-old prayer for a gold medal. The Canadian men never came within reach of a silver or bronze. Podborski finished ninth, Dave Murray of Whistler, B.C., 11th, Todd Brooker of Paris, Ont., 13th, and finally Ken Read, 14th. “I wanted to show that we have the best team in the world,” said coach John Ritchie of Panorama, B.C. “It is a one shot deal here and it didn’t pay off for us.”
Podborski had not regained his feel for highspeed turning since the Kitzbühel competition where he won the Hahnenkamm three weeks ago. His timing was off at Schladming. He went into the first turn too early and thereafter never found the right rhythms of attack. Read said he made many “silly mistakes. There are no excuses.”
For her part, Sorensen needed none. And that was illustrated Thursday night at her victory celebration in the Planai Stadium. As thousands watched a replay of her triumph on a huge electronic screen, the figure One flashed on and off, perhaps a beacon for the future. Sorensen will be in the spotlight again this weekend at Arosa, Switzerland, where two races will close out the women’s World Cup downhill season. She is only one point behind West German star Irene Epple. To the hundreds of millions of TV viewers who witnessed her victory at Haus, Sorensen is clearly the people’s champion. A triumph at Arosa would make her the racers’ champion and complete the coveted double for 1982.
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