Comeback Queen - Ski Mag

Comeback Queen

Features
Author:
Publish date:
Donna Weinbrect

It is tempting to compare Donna Weinbrecht to Picabo Street. Both know what it's like to be the best in their sport, and, after time off, each is returning to competition this year with an eye on the Olympics. But Donna Weinbrecht is nothing like Picabo Street.

Street revels in the spotlight; Weinbrecht seems to hide from it. Street is a raw, quad-powered alpine skiing force; Weinbrecht is sprightly, fairy-like, with an almost dainty touch in moguls. Street is brash, outspoken and opinionated; Weinbrecht is non-confrontational, soft-spoken and tactfully shy.

In fact, all the two really share is a successful past and a desire to get back to the top.At a U.S. Ski Team function not long ago in Beaver Creek, Colo., the blond Weinbrecht, who could pass for an actress or model, mingled politely with a small group of strangers. Together, but from afar, the group admired the gold swoosh pendant on a chain around Picabo's neck, a recent gift from Nike, one of her many sponsors.

"Beautiful," said Donna.

"All you have to do is win a few World Cups to get one," said one of the male guests.

"How about 46?" was Weinbrecht's quiet reply.

If Weinbrecht didn't invent modern competitive mogul skiing, she has done more than anyone else to define it. She has dominated like no other female skier in history. She owns 12 second-place finishes and 12 thirds to go with her 46 World Cup first-place wins. She won the Overall World Cup mogul title in 1990, '91, '92, '94 and '96, the World Championships in 1991 (she was second in '89 and '97), the U.S. National Championship seven times and the Olympic gold medal in 1992. At the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, she literally slipped at the last instant and finished fourth. Impressive as it might be, Street's career can't hold a candle to Weinbrecht's.

Why then has Weinbrecht been treated like the backup singer for a major act? One answer is that freestyle mogul skiers get little attention or support compared to alpine skiers. Yet Weinbrecht has performed like a superstar. Surprisingly, not much has been written about her, and she has been featured in few ads. Jonny Moseley, on the other hand, won mogul gold in Nagano and gained instant rock-star celebrity-a fame that has carried on well after his victory.

Though she never retired officially, Weinbrecht disappeared from skiing's radar the past few seasons. After Nagano, she stepped away from the daily regimen of World Cup competition, occasionally riding a snowboard when an urge to glide downhill overwhelmed her. Now, at age 35, she has served notice that she will try to fight her way onto the 2002 U.S. Olympic Team and seek gold in Salt Lake City.

The questions, of course, are many. Can she keep pace with 17 year olds? Has the sport passed her by? Were she to medal in Salt Lake, would she finally get the recognition she deserves? And maybe most puzzling, why is she doing this when she has nothing left to prove?

There is hope for ambitious skiers who grow up in unlikely places. Though Killington, Vt., is listed as her official residence, West Milford, N.J., is Donna Weinbrecht's real home-just as the large sign at the town line announces. Neighbors protect her. When I was lost, forced to ask directions to the Weinbrechts', the police officer eyed me with suspicion. "Is Donna expecting you?" he demanded.

Her childhood was suburban-bucolic. With her brother, Jimmy, and sister, Joy, she was raised in a comfortable home on the shore of High Crest Lake, sailing, fishing and hiking. The family is tight-knit and "so real," Weinbrecht says, "that it's hard to get a big head." Her bedroom is jammed with medals, trophies, skis and an eclectic collection of new-age literature. She lives there still, unapologetically.

The next-door neighbors, the Warlls, are Canadian skiers who founded a local club. They started Donna skiing at Hidden Valley, 20 minutes away, when she was 6. Her parents, Jim and Caroline, were introduced to the sport, too, a became instant addicts. Donna trained as a racer and was a member of her state-champion high school team. She was competent, though not a star. Racing made her nervous. "It may have helped my technical skills," she says, "but it was too severe, too icy, too restrictive."

When Donna was 14, the Weinbrechts discovered Killington and became weekend warriors. Jim, a contractor, built a house there in 1980. He would pick the kids up at school on Friday afternoons, drive five hours to Vermont and drive back Sunday night. Donna spent winter weekends on runs like Outer Limits-with boys, who were into bumps. She had no official coaching, yet she got very, very good at skiing moguls.

By age 22, she had made the U.S. Ski Team and was becoming its star. That year, her father had a serious skiing accident. He hit a tree and broke his back. Paralyzed. The family was devastated. Her mom was near panic. Jim's convalescence galvanized a mother-daughter bond.

There's no avoiding it. Donna's relationship with her mother is central to the complex Donna Weinbrecht story. Following the accident, Caroline, a normally mild-mannered housewife, grew desperately concerned about Donna's financial future. She became the quintessential stage mother: writing letters, promoting her daughter, soliciting sponsors and strong-arming agents. She was a tough negotiator. Sometimes too tough. She pushed Donna to demand more, to be less private and more outgoing. Donna wanted nothing of it, preferring only to train. "I couldn't take on that much," she says. "It was draining. If I took all that to the hill, I couldn't ski."

To this day, Caroline remains bitter and disillusioned, insisting the USST equipment-pool rules prevented Donna from reaping the rewards of her many victories. Back then, Rossignol, like Nike, saw Picabo Street as high-profile, hence marketable. Weinbrecht's status was second-tier, which meant she got far less money. Furthermore, she was barred from making a more lucrative deal with any other supplier that failed to throw dollars into the USST sponsorship pool.

Time off has given Donna new perspective. She has come back to the negotiating table tougher and more demanding. This time around she told Rossignol that if she didn't get what she wanted, she was going to walk away from any deal and compete on skis painted black. She got what she wanted. This time, her agent is happy to report, she's signed a fair deal that on the freestyle circuit is second only to Moseley's.

In 1992 at Albertville, France, Donna won the first Olympic gold medal awarded in moguls. Winning was easy compared to the aftermath. "Boom! You're a gold medalist," she recalls. "My life changed at that instant. No one can prepare you for it. I was in an arena I wasn't used to: the onslaught of demands, the need for an unlisted number, requests to attend functions you can't possibly make, an appearance on Letterman to explain words like 'aerial' and 'mogul.'

"It was a time of strain and adjustment for me," she recalls. "I'd reached my goal, but I lacked a new one. Then I injured my knee and missed the '93 season."

Rehab provided a new incentive: to recover and come back for the 1994 Olympic Games. The season started well, and she continued to win on the World Cup. But she finished a disappointing seventh at Lillehammer. "I was there physically, but not mentally," she says. "I don't know if I could have handled another medal."

The prelude to her third Olympics was sketchy. "I focused too much on technique and put tons of pressure on myself. I started to fall apart. I crashed my car and then pinched the cartilage in my knee. It blew up, cutting my range of motion. I barely qualified for the Olympic team."

It was crunch time. At the last World Cup before the Nagano Games, she sat down with her first U.S. Team coach, Park Smalley. "We talked about how I approached mogul skiing at the start of my career," Weinbrecht says. "It all happened with my eyes. What I saw, rather than what I thought, fueled how I skied."

In Japan she qualified in a first-place tie with a Canadian. Then there were two days before the finals. "I was asked to make short training passes and not jump. I started to waiver and look at a different line because other competitors were starting to use mine, which was also Jonny's Moseley. Heavier skier traffic was changing the shape of the bumps. My coach asked if I thought I could stick my aerial landings. I couldn't answer honestly because we'd been told not to jump that day. Good, bad or indifferent, I switched lines. The day of the finals, the men competed first. So we had to wait. I was seeded second to last. There was packed wet snow, something between soft and glazed. Liz McIntyre ran early and radioed back up to warn me about the conditions. I felt strong on the ground and in the air. Then after the second landing, something hooked, grabbed my edge. I lost my balance and any chance for a medal. But I never made a scene. I looked up at the scoreboard, and said 'Fourth!' in disgust. Half the world thought I said, 'F-k.' I still get letters about that."

Her most vivid memory of Nagano was the roar of the crowd when Moseley won. They had shared a van on the way to the finals. "Jonny asked me how I felt in '92, how I felt in '94 and how I felt right then," she says. "Later, when I got a chance to check out his medal, he asked if there was anything he should know. I said, 'You'll do great.' I could have given him a better answer."

While our alpine racers have always struggled for success, Americans have dominated in freestyle-particularly the mogul event. Why, until Moseley, freestylers did not catch the public's fancy, enjoy cult-hero status and lucrative endorsements is a mystery. Freestylers would seem to suit the American psyche.

But alpine skiers still get the spotlight, and even B-Team alpine athletes get better ski-company contracts than most freestylers. "Skiing is driven by the alpine events," Weinbrecht says. "We're a young sport. Judged as well as timed. It's taken a long time to educate the public about freestyle. Misunderstandings date back to the old hot-dog days when everything was free-spirited and disorganized. Freestyle wasn't perceived as technical. Moguls was not a classic event. Then came the lawsuits about aerials." (In the late Seventies, several courts found some ski areas liable for injuries to athletes attempting inverted aerials, or "flips." Shortly thereafter nearly all resorts forbade any freestyler to go "upside down," though that stance softened in the Eighties.)

"We prepared standardized courses with machines so there would at least be moguls when competitors arrived. Now they say the courses are too uniform and we should go back to the hot-dog days. It's frustrating," says Weinbrecht.

She believes a big part of the problem is with judging. "There are so many styles out there. Americans stand up tall and try to show perfect technique. The Swedes stand very low, but are scoring very high. Judges are confused. Standards are unclear."

How would Weinbrecht score competitors? "The fastest skier, the one who creates excitement, shows absorption, side-to-side dynamics, good setups before jumps, great big air and soft landings should still win," she says. "It's about flair, about getting a reaction from the judges and from the crowd."

Freestyle, once the maverick realm within the skiing world, now inspires a new, serious generation. Does Weinbrecht's recognition of her sport's changing nature give her a leg up? Or has mogul skiing moved beyond her? Does she even have a realistic chance of making the 2002 U.S. Olympic Team that will compete in Salt Lake City?

Head mogul coach Donny St. Pierre admits Donna has some "touching up" to do, but quickly adds, "The sport hasn't reinvented itself that much." There's a host of young talent, including five other American women who made it into the World Cup finals last year. "All of rather than what I thought, fueled how I skied."

In Japan she qualified in a first-place tie with a Canadian. Then there were two days before the finals. "I was asked to make short training passes and not jump. I started to waiver and look at a different line because other competitors were starting to use mine, which was also Jonny's Moseley. Heavier skier traffic was changing the shape of the bumps. My coach asked if I thought I could stick my aerial landings. I couldn't answer honestly because we'd been told not to jump that day. Good, bad or indifferent, I switched lines. The day of the finals, the men competed first. So we had to wait. I was seeded second to last. There was packed wet snow, something between soft and glazed. Liz McIntyre ran early and radioed back up to warn me about the conditions. I felt strong on the ground and in the air. Then after the second landing, something hooked, grabbed my edge. I lost my balance and any chance for a medal. But I never made a scene. I looked up at the scoreboard, and said 'Fourth!' in disgust. Half the world thought I said, 'F-k.' I still get letters about that."

Her most vivid memory of Nagano was the roar of the crowd when Moseley won. They had shared a van on the way to the finals. "Jonny asked me how I felt in '92, how I felt in '94 and how I felt right then," she says. "Later, when I got a chance to check out his medal, he asked if there was anything he should know. I said, 'You'll do great.' I could have given him a better answer."

While our alpine racers have always struggled for success, Americans have dominated in freestyle-particularly the mogul event. Why, until Moseley, freestylers did not catch the public's fancy, enjoy cult-hero status and lucrative endorsements is a mystery. Freestylers would seem to suit the American psyche.

But alpine skiers still get the spotlight, and even B-Team alpine athletes get better ski-company contracts than most freestylers. "Skiing is driven by the alpine events," Weinbrecht says. "We're a young sport. Judged as well as timed. It's taken a long time to educate the public about freestyle. Misunderstandings date back to the old hot-dog days when everything was free-spirited and disorganized. Freestyle wasn't perceived as technical. Moguls was not a classic event. Then came the lawsuits about aerials." (In the late Seventies, several courts found some ski areas liable for injuries to athletes attempting inverted aerials, or "flips." Shortly thereafter nearly all resorts forbade any freestyler to go "upside down," though that stance softened in the Eighties.)

"We prepared standardized courses with machines so there would at least be moguls when competitors arrived. Now they say the courses are too uniform and we should go back to the hot-dog days. It's frustrating," says Weinbrecht.

She believes a big part of the problem is with judging. "There are so many styles out there. Americans stand up tall and try to show perfect technique. The Swedes stand very low, but are scoring very high. Judges are confused. Standards are unclear."

How would Weinbrecht score competitors? "The fastest skier, the one who creates excitement, shows absorption, side-to-side dynamics, good setups before jumps, great big air and soft landings should still win," she says. "It's about flair, about getting a reaction from the judges and from the crowd."

Freestyle, once the maverick realm within the skiing world, now inspires a new, serious generation. Does Weinbrecht's recognition of her sport's changing nature give her a leg up? Or has mogul skiing moved beyond her? Does she even have a realistic chance of making the 2002 U.S. Olympic Team that will compete in Salt Lake City?

Head mogul coach Donny St. Pierre admits Donna has some "touching up" to do, but quickly adds, "The sport hasn't reinvented itself that much." There's a host of young talent, including five other American women who made it into the World Cup finals last year. "All of them can make the team," says St. Pierre. "And any of them can win at World Cup. It's a matter of who wants to close the deal the most."

Oddly enough, Weinbrecht and Moseley (because he took time off to exploit his status) have been relegated to the B-Team. "That's the way it works," says Weinbrecht. At a USST camp at Mt. Hood, Ore., last summer, she did not receive a pass to cut the liftline. Younger team members cut. She had to wait.

"It's OK," she says. "I like being a working-class athlete again. When I was No. 1 in the world, I had trouble embracing the idea that I was the favorite. I kept trying to push that fact away. Now I'm an underdog, and I know the underdog can come shining through."

Weinbrecht is clearly more comfortable out of the spotlight. It gives her methodical mind time to plan, prepare. She feels like she's starting from ground zero again, and she enjoys that process. "Last summer I wanted to take it slow. Just feel each run and get into the excitement of performing again. But I did more than I thought I could against kids half my age. I learned I can keep up."

Weinbrecht's true test seems more mental than technical. She lost her footing at the Nagano Olympics perhaps because she started doubting her plan. The Weinbrecht gunning for 2002 is self-assured and mature. Her confidence is back. "At the last camp I realized, after a two-year absence, that I'm awful good at this. How I've been treated by the industry doesn't matter. My success has had nothing to do with fate. It hasn't been about good luck or coming along at the right time. I've succeeded because I'm a damn good mogul skier."

There's tranquillity in the Weinbrecht household these days, a patient wait-and-see attitude. Jim, largely recovered from his accident, gets around nicely.

He is a master woodworker. He still sails, still skis. The screech of brother Jimmy's circular saw can be heard next door, where he's building a deck for the Warlls. Sister Joy and her young family are due in from Killington later in the day. Caroline fixes lunch, grumbling quietly about the ineffective promotion of her daughter. Donna just laughs. Then, reluctantly, Caroline laughs too.

Donna insists her success is a family affair, a team effort. Gradually, it seems, the two are resolving their polar approaches to Donna's career. And her life. "You don't go for Olympic medals to get million-dollar contracts," says Donna. "There are lots of Olympic gold medalists out there who nobody's ever heard of." Caroline ignores the remark and then expresses concern about what Donna will do "afterward." Like so many skiing athletes, she has no formal education beyond high school. But Donna's journey has been an education.

Religious as a child, she rejected, then reflected on her Lutheran background, only to come full circle to a new kind of spirituality. She feels, as she says, "connected to the rhythms of life."

She makes no apology for retreating to the bosom of her family. "I've been comfortable at home. It's important to know who you are away from skiing." She reads extensively, attends meditation classes, composts, gardens and worries about the environment. Together with a friend she's writing a children's book, he as writer, she as illustrator. The characters "speak in rhyme and wrestle a lot." They're fairies who ride through the forest on a device that "flies at the speed of laughter." They bear an unmistakable resemblance to the artist rendering them.

Weinbrecht's comeback journey has been about letting go. Once "The Face of Freestyle," she carried the ball for the U.S. Freestyle Team. "I paved the road for those who followed," she says, "but it's not my cause anymore. I can't get all worked up about politics. I just want to ski."

The journey has been about resuming as well. "I never retired officially because I had no idea what I was retiring to," she allows. She returned to Killington, where it all began, and bonded with old friends. "I got chubby, aand my body hurt, so I started training again."

Her knee, reconstructed several years ago, is doing pretty well. She won the six World Cup events following her initial recovery, but concedes that jumping aggravates it, and she takes glucosamine. "I had nightmares about my knee before the first training camps in 2000," she admits. "I can't think about it. Once I get in motion, thoughts of the knee disappear."

The journey is about self-awareness. "Maybe I'm too nice. Maybe I should be more controversial. I'm not going to burn bridges or poop on people. I couldn't stand myself if I flaunted my gold medal. I don't want to make waves. What I am is loyal."

The only equipment change she has made throughout her career has been minor: from Smith to Oakley goggles. Her cautious reluctance to be critical of other athletes, coaches, her suppliers or the system leaves her with few enemies.

Perhaps her journey is about movement from central athlete to mentor. She would like to stay with the sport and does not rule out the possibility of coaching. Salt Lake 2002 marks the 10th anniversary of her Albertville gold. She would not consider competing were the Olympics to be held outside the U.S. "Maybe I can't be the most consistent skier all season long," she reminds us, "but one 30-second run in the Olympics can tell a different story."

She's getting close to the younger athletes who may become her Olympic teammates, analyzing their technique. "I think a lot of them all and wish them all the best," she says.

They may or may not consider her serious competition, but there's an aura about the new Donna Weinbrecht that should make them afraid. Very afraid. Like a Zen master, she deflects their compliments, respects their talents and reduces pressure on herself. The master is letting the student become the teacher. Instead of showing them, she is saying, "No, you show me."

The trap may be set.m can make the team," says St. Pierre. "And any of them can win at World Cup. It's a matter of who wants to close the deal the most."

Oddly enough, Weinbrecht and Moseley (because he took time off to exploit his status) have been relegated to the B-Team. "That's the way it works," says Weinbrecht. At a USST camp at Mt. Hood, Ore., last summer, she did not receive a pass to cut the liftline. Younger team members cut. She had to wait.

"It's OK," she says. "I like being a working-class athlete again. When I was No. 1 in the world, I had trouble embracing the idea that I was the favorite. I kept trying to push that fact away. Now I'm an underdog, and I know the underdog can come shining through."

Weinbrecht is clearly more comfortable out of the spotlight. It gives her methodical mind time to plan, prepare. She feels like she's starting from ground zero again, and she enjoys that process. "Last summer I wanted to take it slow. Just feel each run and get into the excitement of performing again. But I did more than I thought I could against kids half my age. I learned I can keep up."

Weinbrecht's true test seems more mental than technical. She lost her footing at the Nagano Olympics perhaps because she started doubting her plan. The Weinbrecht gunning for 2002 is self-assured and mature. Her confidence is back. "At the last camp I realized, after a two-year absence, that I'm awful good at this. How I've been treated by the industry doesn't matter. My success has had nothing to do with fate. It hasn't been about good luck or coming along at the right time. I've succeeded because I'm a damn good mogul skier."

There's tranquillity in the Weinbrecht household these days, a patient wait-and-see attitude. Jim, largely recovered from his accident, gets around nicely.

He is a master woodworker. He still sails, still skis. The screech of brother Jimmy's circular saw can be heard next door, where he's building a deck for the Warlls. Sister Joy and her young family are due in from Killington later in the day. Caroline fixes lunch, grumbling quietly about the ineffective promotion of her daughter. Donna just laughs. Then, reluctantly, Caroline laughs too.

Donna insists her success is a family affair, a team effort. Gradually, it seems, the two are resolving their polar approaches to Donna's career. And her life. "You don't go for Olympic medals to get million-dollar contracts," says Donna. "There are lots of Olympic gold medalists out there who nobody's ever heard of." Caroline ignores the remark and then expresses concern about what Donna will do "afterward." Like so many skiing athletes, she has no formal education beyond high school. But Donna's journey has been an education.

Religious as a child, she rejected, then reflected on her Lutheran background, only to come full circle to a new kind of spirituality. She feels, as she says, "connected to the rhythms of life."

She makes no apology for retreating to the bosom of her family. "I've been comfortable at home. It's important to know who you are away from skiing." She reads extensively, attends meditation classes, composts, gardens and worries about the environment. Together with a friend she's writing a children's book, he as writer, she as illustrator. The characters "speak in rhyme and wrestle a lot." They're fairies who ride through the forest on a device that "flies at the speed of laughter." They bear an unmistakable resemblance to the artist rendering them.

Weinbrecht's comeback journey has been about letting go. Once "The Face of Freestyle," she carried the ball for the U.S. Freestyle Team. "I paved the road for those who followed," she says, "but it's not my cause anymore. I can't get all worked up about politics. I just want to ski."

The journey has been about resuming as well. "I never retired officially because I had no idea what I was retiring to," she allows. She returned to Killington, where it all began, and bonded with old friends. "I got chubby, and my body hurt, so I started training again."

Her knee, reconstructed several years ago, is doing pretty well. She won the six World Cup events following her initial recovery, but concedes that jumping aggravates it, and she takes glucosamine. "I had nightmares about my knee before the first training camps in 2000," she admits. "I can't think about it. Once I get in motion, thoughts of the knee disappear."

The journey is about self-awareness. "Maybe I'm too nice. Maybe I should be more controversial. I'm not going to burn bridges or poop on people. I couldn't stand myself if I flaunted my gold medal. I don't want to make waves. What I am is loyal."

The only equipment change she has made throughout her career has been minor: from Smith to Oakley goggles. Her cautious reluctance to be critical of other athletes, coaches, her suppliers or the system leaves her with few enemies.

Perhaps her journey is about movement from central athlete to mentor. She would like to stay with the sport and does not rule out the possibility of coaching. Salt Lake 2002 marks the 10th anniversary of her Albertville gold. She would not consider competing were the Olympics to be held outside the U.S. "Maybe I can't be the most consistent skier all season long," she reminds us, "but one 30-second run in the Olympics can tell a different story."

She's getting close to the younger athletes who may become her Olympic teammates, analyzing their technique. "I think a lot of them all and wish them all the best," she says.

They may or may not consider her serious competition, but there's an aura about the new Donna Weinbrecht that should make them afraid. Very afraid. Like a Zen master, she deflects their compliments, respects their talents and reduces pressure on herself. The master is letting the student become the teacher. Instead of showing them, she is saying, "No, you show me."

The trap may be set.hubby, and my body hurt, so I started training again."

Her knee, reconstructed several years ago, is doing pretty well. She won the six World Cup events following her initial recovery, but concedes that jumping aggravates it, and she takes glucosamine. "I had nightmares about my knee before the first training camps in 2000," she admits. "I can't think about it. Once I get in motion, thoughts of the knee disappear."

The journey is about self-awareness. "Maybe I'm too nice. Maybe I should be more controversial. I'm not going to burn bridges or poop on people. I couldn't stand myself if I flaunted my gold medal. I don't want to make waves. What I am is loyal."

The only equipment change she has made throughout her career has been minor: from Smith to Oakley goggles. Her cautious reluctance to be critical of other athletes, coaches, her suppliers or the system leaves her with few enemies.

Perhaps her journey is about movement from central athlete to mentor. She would like to stay with the sport and does not rule out the possibility of coaching. Salt Lake 2002 marks the 10th anniversary of her Albertville gold. She would not consider competing were the Olympics to be held outside the U.S. "Maybe I can't be the most consistent skier all season long," she reminds us, "but one 30-second run in the Olympics can tell a different story."

She's getting close to the younger athletes who may become her Olympic teammates, analyzing their technique. "I think a lot of them all and wish them all the best," she says.

They may or may not consider her serious competition, but there's an aura about the new Donna Weinbrecht that should make them afraid. Very afraid. Like a Zen master, she deflects their compliments, respects their talents and reduces pressure on herself. The master is letting the student become the teacher. Instead of showing them, she is saying, "No, you show me."

The trap may be set.

Related