CARRABASSETT VALLEY, MAINE GDB — CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine -- "I just want to ski 50 feet as a family," Jill Parisien was saying at lunch in a crowded restaurant on Sugarloaf Mountain recently. "Just 50 feet. It's all I ask for."
A modest enough request, it would seem, from a mother who saw the sport of skiing turn from a family unifier to a splintering force over the past 10 years.
Yes, she says. It has been that long. Ten years since we have been all together.
That was the decade in which her children -- J.P., Julie, Anna and Robbie -- were developing through the junior ranks of ski racing in the frigid white classrooms of the Maine and Vermont mountains.
For the elder Parisiens, Jill and Victor, from Auburn, Maine, it was a decade of constantly trying to remember just where the next race was.
But now that's easy, even if they didn't have a schedule stuck up on the refrigerator door. The big one looming ahead is Albertville, France, next month, when 20-year-old Julie carries most of the hopes for a resurgence of the United States' skiing prowess into the Olympic Games.
Quite a heavy assignment?
"No, I don't feel like it's a lot of pressure," said Julie, taking a break from her day of skiing, autograph-signing and schmoozing on a promotional day at Sugarloaf. "I mean, it's always there, and everyone keeps talking about it. But you have to keep remembering that even though the Olympics are special, it's just one more ski day."
This is the age-old chestnut used by players and coaches alike to quell the butterflies at such moments of reflection when -- yes -- here come the Olympics, over the horizon and headed this way. Parisien sipped some coffee. "Just six -- just five -- weeks away," she said, almost with a gasp.
For no matter how many times Julie Parisien hears that she is just part of a new, strong women's team going to France, that the Olympics are just part of the large international ski picture, she knows the stakes. Like it or not, the baton is in her hand. One big day last March 20 at Waterville Valley sealed her fate.
Parisien, a 5-foot-8, 155-pound, powerfully built skier who masters her size with dazzling leg quickness and balance, was looked on as "future promise." From the time five years ago when, as a Burke Mountain Academy skier, she began competing against U.S. Ski Team members, often shredding the times of the older competitors, Parisien has never been off the radar screen of the U.S. coaches as they assessed the talent.
There have been times when the blips on that screen seemed few and far between. 1984 was the glory year for the men's and women's teams in the Sarajevo Olympics. Somewhat overshadowed by the triumphal exit of Phil and Steve Mahre, and the show-biz antics of Billy Johnson was the silver-medal farewell from veteran Christin Cooper, followed by the retirement of longtime mainstay Cindy Nelson.
Only Tamara McKinney, though battling a mountain of injuries and family problems, hung in there as a reminder of those glory days.
By the Calgary Olympics in 1988, Parisien was 16 and just beginning to draw notice from U.S. coaches who watched her work out with nationally ranked skiers of college age. Somewhere along that time, she remembers, it suddenly became clear that she belonged in the top ranks.
"I remember when it hit me," she said. "Not exactly, but I remember when I knew that I could always compete with the best. From then on, it was a matter of working hard to get to the top. From the time I was a little kid following my brothers around, I knew I just wanted never to get beaten. That's what I always hated most."
For Little League parents who think the training should start as soon as the child clicks on his first skis, be advised that Parisien did not think about heavy technique work before the age of 14, and only then began the first bit of dry-land training. Most of her skiing childhood had taken the form of fast free skiing on Sugarloaf's long, steep, rolling runs as she tried to keep up with her brothers.
In 1985, she began at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, where the intense technical instruction began, helping her hone her instinct for speed into turning quickness. Again, the combination of her size, strength and quickness gave her a skiing profile not unlike that of the great Italian racer Alberto Tomba.
"First," she said, assessing her strengths, "you have to have the athletic talent and the balance. If those aren't there, you're just not going to be a great ski racer. My size does help me. There's no getting around the fact that someone shorter has to work harder to make the turn."
By 1988, while the full effect of the U.S. humiliation was just settling in at Calgary, up in Bachelor, Ore., at the Junior Olympics, Parisien placed second in the downhill. There was the faintest of echoes.