ALPINE SKIING

DOWNHILL RIVALRY

There is no love lost between the two Swiss women who dominate skiing’s most glamorous event

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 2 1988
ALPINE SKIING

DOWNHILL RIVALRY

There is no love lost between the two Swiss women who dominate skiing’s most glamorous event

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 2 1988

DOWNHILL RIVALRY

ALPINE SKIING

There is no love lost between the two Swiss women who dominate skiing’s most glamorous event

It is 3 p.m. on a sunlit day at the Walliser family farm in Mosnang, Switzerland, and the cows will not come home. Half a dozen of them are standing placidly in the middle of a field, chewing grass and ignoring the entreaties of Maria Walliser to approach the barn. “Come here, my pretty ones, come here,” implores Walliser, who wants to show them to her visitors. The cows pay no heed, and Walliser, who is making cooing sounds and snapping her fingers to attract their attention, will not give up. For several minutes the tableau remains unchanged, with the cows unmoving and Walliser flashing the radiant smile that has made the 24-year-old champion skier one of the world’s most photographed athletes. Finally, one of the cows breaks from the herd and takes a half-dozen steps in the direction of the barn. That is enough for Walliser, who runs up and gives the cow a hug. “You see,” she says to her visitors. “Just be persistent and you will always get what you want.”

The next day, at an open-air café several hundred kilometres southwest in the village of Villars, another Swiss champion drains the last of a cappuccino while a doting waitress hovers nearby to refill her cup. For the past hour 21-year-old Michela Figini has been talking animatedly about everything from her childhood life in Prato (Leventina), a SwissItalian village, to her newfound passion for golf. But when the name of her archrival

Walliser is mentioned, Figini leans back in her seat and sighs heavily. “Maria is charming, Maria is talented, and everybody loves Maria,” she says. “But Maria and I are not friends. There are a lot of reasons why, but only one that matters: we both want to be champions too much to be friends.”

Figini and Walliser do frankly dislike each other, but in their quest for Olympic gold there is no avoiding one another. They share the same athletic passion and, in the hothouse atmosphere of the Swiss downhill ski program, the same goal of being number 1 in the world. Both have played leading roles in Switzerland’s overall dominance of downhill skiing in recent years. At the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984, 17-year-old Figini became the youngest skier in history to win a gold medal. She went on to win the World Cup downhill championships in 1985 and 1987. But Walliser has become the top-ranking all-around female champion, winning the overall World Cup title in 1986 and 1987, and beating Figini in the downhill category in two out of the past four years. Says Walliser: “For a long time I thought only about how much I wanted to beat Michela, and it had a bad effect on everything I did. Then I realized I must simply try to be my best. Now Michela must confront the fact that she faces the same attitude problem about me.” Figini acknowledges that Walliser’s rapid rise has affected her own performance. She adds: “It is not easy

when someone you have consistently beaten gets the better of you. Now I am facing the realization that I am the underdog.”

Still, Figini, with her unrelenting, full-tilt style, is a strong contender for a gold medal in skiing’s most glamorous event, the downhill race. Walliser, whose skiing is more precise, controlled and technically correct, is in the thick of contention for three medals. She will battle Figini and Canada’s Laurie Graham for gold in the downhill and is also a leading competitor in the Super G and giant slalom categories. But Walliser is taking nothing for granted, saying, “I have learned from my own happy experience that new people can rise to the top in this sport quite quickly.”

Rising to the top is a particular concern in Switzerland, where skiing is a national preoccupation.

Despite their amateur status, team members’ incomes are heavily tied to their performance on ski slopes. Through contracts with ski suppliers,

Swiss skiers receive bonus payments of $7,600 for winning a World Cup race,

$3,800 for finishing second and $1,900 for placing third.

Victories also attract lucrative endorsement contracts.

Walliser will not reveal how much money she made last year, but according to insiders on the ski circuit, a conservative estimate would be $300,000. She also receives other perquisites, including a gold and silver MercedesBenz supplied by the manufacturer. Figini is believed to have made about $200,000 and drives a leased Audi Quatro. She says: “This is not something where you make a lot of money for a lifetime.

We have only a few years to do well.”

At an early age the Swiss skiers face relentless pressure to win and intense public scrutiny of their private lives. The European media are unfailingly attentive to their exploits, both on the course and off. Figini, who was a star at 14 and the subject of a biography at 18, was such a household name that Swiss newspapers often referred to her simply by her nickname, “Michi.” But after a series of poor finishes in the 1985-1986 World Cup season, there was widespread speculation that her career was over. Says Figini: “It’s an odd feeling to hear people say your best days are behind you when you are not yet 21.”

Walliser’s rise to the top has been only slightly less meteoric. She began the sport at 3, using a ski lift on the family’s cattle farm. After winning a series of junior competitions, she became a member of the national team at 17 and, in her first year, finished second in a

Fédération Internationale de Ski giant slalom race. Since winning her silver medal in the downhill category at Sarajevo, Walliser has dominated the World Cup circuit. Occasional appearances as a fashion model and TV sports commentator have only increased her celebrity, and her personal life has been the subject of constant speculation in print and on the TV screens of Europe. Walliser, who spends much of her free time in Davos with her boyfriend, says: “It always amazes me to open the paper and discover who I am supposed to be having an affair with. Sometimes I have never even

met the people they try to link me with.”

Walliser clearly enjoys being the centre of attention. At her parents’ home, three large scrapbooks bulge with her clippings, and she admits, “It is much fun to look through them and see what people are saying about me.” Last year a rumor that Walliser had met with an American film producer to discuss an acting career made the front page of Swiss papers. “I do want to be an actress,” she says. “But that is something which is still in the future.” Critics claim that Walliser has already demonstrated a knack for the profession: some teammates refer to her as “a phoney.” The charge infuriates her. “I have no apologies to make for being nice to people,” she says. “I think some of those who criticize me forget the obligation we have to the people who come to see us.”

Figini is less comfortable with the fame that

her skiing has won her. A reluctant traveller with a marked distaste for big cities, she has little patience with public curiosity about her private life. “I do not see why being a skier means you have to hold everything about yourself open to the public,” she says. Her comparative reticence and her rivalry with the more extroverted Walliser have contributed to the image that she is short-tempered. “The problem,” says Figini, “is that if you answer a question nicely 99 times and badly on the 100th occasion, you become known as difficult.” When not on the slopes, she spends as much time as possible in her home village with her family and close friends. Unlike Walliser, Figini does not often attend social functions. “I spend enough time in public,” she says. “I need time just to be by myself.” For both Figini and Walliser, those private times are rare. Like their counterparts on the men’s team, the Swiss women spend an average of 11 months a year training and racing. Out of season, they run six to eight kilometres four days a week and spend several hours on the remaining three lifting weights and practising sports such as badminton to sharpen their reaction times. During the season, which runs from late November to March, they are expected to be in bed by 10 p.m. During their summer recess in July they continue to work out. When Figini went on vacation to Hawaii last July, she found it difficult to change her pace. “I spent about half the day running around,” she says. “You just cannot wind down.”

For all their differences, both rivals are finding the pace increasingly wearying. After the current World Cup season Walliser will seriously consider an acting career. Figini, who is nearly three years younger, will continue racing “as long as it remains satisfying.” But she adds, “There were times when I began to lose when it was not at all satisfying.” Having devoted most of their lives to skiing, both women feel unprepared for life away from the sport’s tightly controlled environment. “It is really all I have known or ever done,” says Figini. “That, in a way, is rather frightening.” Adds Walliser: “I have not had a life like most people. Perhaps, after skiing, I will find out what it is like for everyone else.” Until then, the two competitors seem destined to remain uneasy companions on the same hard trail, chasing gold-medal glory.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

in Mosnang and Villars