It took six long years, but on Saturday after the first women’s World Cup race ever held in Canada, home-grown Laurie Graham could finally look back up a mountain and exclaim, “I did it.” The ever-smiling 22-year-old had “tucked all the way” down the season’s longest course, hastily prepared at Mont Tremblant, Que. (due to lack of snow at the original Mont Ste. Anne site), for her first World Cup win. “There are so many factors in downhill racing,” Graham said after the run that vaulted her into fifth place in the final overall standings. “They just all came together for me today.” For teammate Gerry Sorensen, who had won all five of the week’s training runs, it all came apart. The first down the mountain, Sorensen finished 23rd.
As the women’s team celebrated the happy conclusion to the season, the men’s team was shrouded in fog and controversy in Aspen, Colo. A blanket of mist and snow postponed the secondlast race of the season (the finale will be run this week at Lake Louise) and the controversy too lingered. With Steve Podborski, Ken Read and Todd Brooker still in the hunt for the World Cup crown that Podborski won last season, the team members were billed $2,065 each last week by the Canadian Ski Association to cover the team’s budget deficit. If that was not enough to upset the skiers, coach John Ritchie announced that he was leaving the team after the Lake Louise race. At week’s end, while the men’s team clearly still had much ground to cover on mountain slopes and in meetings, the women could only reflect on the trials of their season.
When Canada’s women skiers left for Europe in December the prospects had never been brighter for the national team in its 16 years of World Cup downhill racing. Canada had three racers who would start in the first seed—that favored group of 15 that wins almost every race. Sorensen, 24, winner of two World Cup races and the World Championship in 1982, was ranked as the world’s number 1 downhiller by the International Ski Federation (FIS). Graham ranked 10th. Dianne Lehodey, 22, the most naturally talented of the three, was ranked 15th, behind Diana (Deedee) Haight, Canada’s first-ever Europa Cup winner, at age 18 considered to be the nation’s future standardbearer. But by the time they returned
home after seven races to prepare for last Saturday’s event, the lustre was gone. Haight had broken a leg in the first race, then Lehodey dislocated a hip in the third. Sorensen and Graham were winless. Injuries, thaws, storms, sickness and a spate of short courses had conspired to tarnish their promise.
“It seemed as if we were always waiting for winter to begin,” said Graham. The season opened in Val d’Isère, France, with a sixth-place finish for Graham. Sorensen was fourth and apparently on target to accomplish her season-long goal of consistently finishing in the top five. The second downhill was moved from Piancavallo, Italy, to San Sicario because of the lack of snow. Graham, skiing in overcast conditions, had the entire first seed beaten and the race won until the sun came out. Later, France’s Caroline Attia took advantage of better visibility to win. Graham was 11th; Sorensen, 20th.
After Christmas lower-altitude resorts in Europe were devoid of snow. The Pfronten, West Germany, race was switched to Schruns, Austria, where it was twinned with a previously scheduled downhill. Switzerland’s Doris De Agostini, dubbed “Spider” for her
arms-and-legs-akimbo style, won her second downhill of the season. Graham was fourth, and Sorensen, fifth, although she would likely have placed higher but for Lehodey’s fall the day before in training: Sorensen was the only one to see Lehodey loaded, screaming, into a helicopter.
With a lVfc-m snowfall at Schruns, the race was replaced the following weekend by a second downhill in Megève, France. Sorensen was seventh the first day and a depressing 25th the second. Skiing tentatively, Graham was 21st and 12th. In Les Diablerets, Switzerland, at the end of January, eventual women’s champion De Agostini won her third race.
Yet the women’s annual odyssey was, in part, worth the trek. As many as half of this year’s first seed will be pushed out by newcomers, but certainly not Sorensen and Graham. Andrea Bedard, a ponytailed 20-year-old member of the training squad from Sutton, Que., won an FIS slalom race. And Karen Stemmle, 19, finished a respectable sixth at Mont Tremblant. Graham’s win Saturday ensured the team hope for another year of bright promise.
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