When you think of teams, you think of basketball dunks followed by high-fives, head-butting touchdown celebrations and dugout-clearing homeruns. The image of a lone ski racer visualizing his run before the start, or inspecting a course with her Walkman, does not bring the word “team” to mind.
Skiing is definitely an individual sport. But for practical purposes, most skiers train and travel as a team. A team without the structure to support each member feels like a bad summer camp that just won’t end. But a good team is stronger than the sum of its parts, and brings out the best in each individual. The distinction between existing as a team and functioning as a team means everything when it comes to long-term success.
In U.S. ski racing, the best example of a strong, functioning team was the women of the early Eighties, a squad that won the U.S.’s only Nations Cup in 1984. To this day, they are the gold standard by which every subsequent team is measured. So far, none has come close. The younger members of the current U.S. team have been touted for a half decade as more gifted. In raw talent, they may be, but team success requires more than mere ability.
Certainly, a big part of the ’84 team’s success was talent, but what pulled the team together was the way its members treated each other. You could not have assembled a more diverse group of talents and personalities. There was Cindy Nelson, the experienced, analytical all-event skier; Christin Cooper, the loner and fiercest competitor; Tamara McKinney, the protégé, who at 20 had already won one overall World Cup title and two giant slalom titles; Holly Flanders, the only speed specialist of the group; and Debbie Armstrong, the aw-shucks newcomer running on exuberance and pure athletic skill. Each brought a unique mix of strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. Among them, they collected 29 World Cup wins and a dozen Olympic and World Championship medals.
Independent, confident, feisty, driven. These are not the traits that lead to warm and fuzzy togetherness. “We didn’t exactly dig each other,” Cooper readily admits, and the rest of the group concurs. But neither did they dislike each other. Most people will never know what it’s like to live so closely, day and night, with anyone other than family. As each other’s roommates and closest competition, it’s a wonder they all survived, let alone thrived.
What saved them was a team built on mutual respect among athletes and coaches, full of compassion yet devoid of excuses. Hard work was the rule but fun was the motivation. Head coach Michel Rudigoz set the tone from the top. “He had the gift of knowing how to make different personalities mesh,” recalls McKinney. “The coaches made it a point to respect us as individuals. It takes strong leadership and confidence to do that.”
Strength was the backbone of the program. It began off-season, under the direction of trainer John Atkins. A former football coach, Vietnam vet and black-belt Karate champion, Atkins made it his mission to get these women as tough as they could be. His legendary grueling boot camps in Hawaii pushed each beyond her physcial and emotional limits. The idea was not to break the athletes, but to drive them to each other for support. Hawaii became the metaphor for the team’s philosophy: Place yourself in a nice environment, then work like hell-together.
Once they were physically at their peak, the key was staying focused during the season when pressure heated up the emotions. For that they depended on a core philosophy beneath the hardcore exterior: It’s supposed to be fun.
Cooper credits their success largely to the coaches’ balance of technical expertise, dedication and humor. “Speed comes from your spirit,” she explains. “You need to have the skill, the strength and the fight, but you have to have the joy inside to spark it all.” When the air got too tense, the coaches knew how to lighten up and gave the athletes the breathing roomm to grow in their own direction.
After the 1984 Olympics, the group dispersed. Some athletes and coaches remained. (Armstrong retired after the 1988 Olympics; McKinney stayed on to win World Championship gold in 1989.) But the magic was gone. The team retained the dictatorial component of the boot-camp mentality, but it was no longer tempered with respectful camaraderie among athletes and coaches. In trying to recapture the right mix, a revolving door of coaches and programs ensued. Only four years after Sarajevo, the team limped into Calgary, with few of the top athletes healthy and nary a legitimate medal hope. The women did win two medals in both 1992 and 1994, but they never were a force as a team again.
That may be about to change. This year’s Olympic team, like its famous predecessors, has had the benefit of a consistent training and coaching staff. They have the mix of talent, too-a proven A-team and a viable B-team ready for full-time World Cup action. Unlike the 1984 team, the class of 2002, for the most part, came up the ranks together in a methodical way. Theirs is a program of formalized goal-setting and scientific analyses, where physiological testing evaluates fatigue and computer-generated training schedules are strictly followed.
The American women leapt from ninth to fifth last season, and now have legitimate contenders in every event. Picabo Street’s two-season absence due to injury provided the opportunity-and expectation-for others to step up a level. What remains to be seen with this group, especially with Street’s return, is how they function as a team, how their aspirations and egos can cohabitate in the heat of competition.
That component has been a stumbling block before. Since 1984, there have been many moments of individual greatness, and many talent-rich teams. But the environment has only been able to support one or two strong contenders at their peak performance at any one time. The star-centric atmosphere subtly undermines the integrity of the team structure, and fissures begin to show.
Respect for the unspoken rules can prevent that scenario. McKinney-with her “peanut-sized lungs”-recalls watching the group take off for morning runs up the volcano in Hawaii. As the team’s star, she could have excused herself from virtually anything. But as the youngest of seven kids, she knew better. “I could waste energy complaining or just give it up and try my guts out. That was the thing with our team,” she explains, “nobody was ever too good to try.”