American Downhiller Strikes Gold Moe Edges Odds-on Favorite With Seat-of-the-pants Win

Posted: February 14, 1994

OYER, Norway — When Tommy Moe, a pistol-packing, white-water-kayaking reformed dope smoker

from the wilds of Alaska, crossed the finish line of the Olympic downhill yesterday, the crowd went silent for a moment.

It was stunned. Moe had seized the gold medal from a local hero.

Norwegian racer Kjetil Aamodt had preceded Moe down the icy course and taken the lead in the race. About 40,000 people were cheering for Aamodt during Moe's run, all but ignoring the American.

But when Moe crossed the finish line and his time flashed on the gigantic scoreboard, the cheering stopped. Moe had beaten Aamodt by four one- hundredths of a second. Just as suddenly, the crowd began cheering wildly, this time for Moe.

"I had no idea how I did until I heard the crowd cheering for me," Moe said. He danced on his skis through the finish area, stopped, popped off his

skis and kissed them.

But the race was not over. Moe had started in the eighth position, and there were still 47 racers to go. So he stood and watched, oblivious to the bitter cold.

As each racer came down the course, finishing well behind the leader, it became apparent that Moe was about to pull off a gigantic upset. An American winning a downhill race is like a Pop Warner team winning the Super Bowl. The Europeans look with disdain on Americans and Canadians and usually with good reason, for they rarely master the steep and icy courses in Europe.

Yesterday, Moe's time of 1:45.75 was good enough for the gold medal. Moe, who will turn 24 on Thursday, is the first American to win a gold in downhill since Billy Johnson won the gold 10 years ago in Sarajevo.

Norway's Aamodt took the silver in 1:45.79. Canadian Ed Podivinsky (1:45.87) came in third and collected a bronze.

It was Moe's first victory since he joined the World Cup race circuit four years ago.

And the race was a gunfight on snow.

At 8:45 a.m. yesterday the sun was just coming up in Lillehammer. Up here, more than an hour's drive up the valley, it was 17 below zero and a light snow was falling.

An hour before race time, people were lined up 10 and 20 deep along the last 200 yards of the course, jumping and dancing to music blaring from a loudspeaker - not because they were happy, but because they were trying to stay warm.

Moe, who had finished fourth in the last training run on Saturday, spent the morning at a rest station about halfway up the mountain. He was trying to relax, trying not to think about how well he had done in training. The coaches later said that he was yawning most of the time, and they took that as a good sign.

"In the past," Moe said, "maybe I wasn't saving my best runs for race day. Today, the biggest factor was that I stayed relaxed. I didn't put any

pressure on myself. Today, I didn't have any thoughts in my mind that I was going to win."

At the top of the mountain, waiting for the race, he made himself relax. ''I got nothing to lose," he thought to himself, instead of thinking about winning.

The bitter cold had made the course extremely slick. "Like a hockey rink," Moe would say. But he was prepared for the ice. The day before, in practice, he had concentrated on putting his weight on his outside ski edge on every hairpin turn, digging the razor-sharp edges into the ice and holding it there. Any slippage, he knew, would take a hundredth of a second here, a hundredth of a second there, off his time, and he would not have a chance.

The top of the downhill course is the steepest. And it also has the most difficult turns. Moe had spent the last two summers training in slalom racing, to improve his turning skills. All those extra training sessions in the summer, when he would rather have been kayaking on uncharted rivers in Alaska, were about to pay off.

But first he had to watch Aamodt ski the course. Aamodt, who had a chance to win five medals here, is considered the best overall skier in the world today. He is a little on the short side, like a second baseman, but has powerful hips and thighs, which he uses to hold his speed on the treacherous curves.

His strength was on the top of the course. And he came out firing, recording the day's fastest time on that portion of the course.

When he crossed the finish line, the Norwegian crowd screamed in delight. Aamodt, the son of a ski coach, took off his skis and thrust them into the air, over and over again.

Now it was Moe's turn. He stood in the starting gate and snapped his boots shut. Still no thoughts of finishing first.

He came out knowing he had to ski well on top. By the time he got through the murderous curves, he was just .21 seconds behind Aamodt. The crowd hardly noticed.

Next he was coming into the section of the course that he knew best. It is called Winther's Cut, named after the mayor of nearby Ringebu, Erik Winther. In 1990, the Norwegian government ordered the mayor to halt construction of the Olympic downhill course, saying he was cutting down too many trees. The mayor ignored the order. The press named him "Chopper."

This part of the course is extremely steep, a 64 percent grade, and leads into the section containing Russi's jump, midpoint of the course and also its biggest jump.

Moe got to know this portion of the course intimately this week. The U.S. ski team was living in a chalet a few feet from Winther's Cut. Moe's bedroom stared right out at it.

The night before the race, Moe kept going to his window, looking at the course, memorizing every inch, imagining the line he would take in the race.

It paid off.

In this section, he overtook the Norwegian. He went from .21 seconds behind to .26 seconds ahead. It was a gigantic surge.

Still, the crowd did not notice. But Aamodt was beginning to take note. He was no longer celebrating. Now he was watching Moe on a big-screen television.

Moe felt good. He knew he was having a good race because it did not feel as if he was skiing fast. That is how he can tell. "When I race my best I feel smooth, not fast," he said.

He came into the bottom of the course still holding the lead. But there was trouble ahead, at a jump called "The Elevator" because of its dramatic drop- off.

"The last jump, I took too much of a risk and went off it early and landed hard," Moe said. "I flew almost to the bottom of the jump, and the thought that went through my mind was: 'There is no way you are going to pull this off.' But I guess that means you are going fast, when you fly to the bottom of the hill."

When he landed, the crowd gasped. Moe had to put his hand on the ground to keep himself from falling. He recovered quickly and got into a deep crouch for the final nine seconds of the course. He tucked his ski poles under his arms and was crouching so low that his backside was nearly scraping the snow.

When he came across the finish line, he turned quickly, sending up a cloud of snow.

He heard the cheers, but still he did not know just how fast he had raced.

"I heard the crowd cheering," he said, "and I looked up and saw the No. 1, and I was really surprised because, you know, usually when I hear the crowd cheering and I look up, I see a No. 2 or No. 3 or 10 or 14 or something. It was just a wonderful feeling to see that."

After he kissed his skis, he walked over to Howard Peterson, the CEO of the U.S. ski team, and told Peterson he thought he might have a chance at a bronze or silver.

The man he had just beaten, Aamodt, said he was shocked by how fast he had gone from first to second.

"When I came to finish, I was really enjoying life for a moment there," said Aamodt. "It was great to be in the lead. There were many people screaming. It was a great feeling. It is a very big experience in life to be in the lead in an Olympic race. But it only last for two minutes. Then Tommy came down."

When the waiting ended and Tommy Moe realized that his time would earn him his first victory and a gold medal, he recalled looking out his window at the course the night before, and the thing he kept saying to himself over and over: "I'm a racer now. I race my best on race day now."

Then Tommy Moe paused and smiled a golden smile.

"I did that today," he said.

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