NEW JERSEY — New Jersey?
Isn't that the place with the shore, not the slopes? Isn't that the state with a turnpike, a bunch of oil refineries and a native son named Bruce Springsteen?
So how do you explain that the only sure-shot gold medalist the United States will bring to the Winter Olympics comes from that great Alpine state of . . .
Donna Weinbrecht, a 26-year-old native of West Milford, is the reigning world champion in mogul skiing. The freestyle event, sort of the ice dancing of snow, will be making its first appearance as a medal sport in the Winter Olympics in Albertville.
Skiing down a course layered with snow bumps that could swallow a Jeep, Weinbrecht turns sport into high-speed art. Her goals are to ski fast and entertain, winning the hearts and minds of judges who rate the skiers on speed and on the quality and technique of their turns and aerials.
"You go through a series of emotions when you ski," Weinbrecht said. "It's a sprint from point A to point B. It's also gymnastics. It's pliometrics [an exercise routine] in motion."
In the buildup to Albertville, Weinbrecht has seized much of the attention. There could be other great American ski stories at these Olympics. AJ Kitt taking on the world in the men's downhill. A women's Alpine team capable of skiing away with a few golds.
But Weinbrecht could overshadow them all.
"I've never seen anyone dominate a sport the way Donna has over the past four years," said Weinbrecht's former coach, Park Smalley. "She is one of the best in the world right now, male or female, in any type of skiing."
Weinbrecht's popularity is easy to explain. Her sport is made for MTV. (The only thing missing is a power chord.) Her 24 World Cup victories during a three-year stretch give her an unbeatable reputation.
L And there is the undeniable hook of her roots in New Jersey.
"It's hard for me to be out in the public eye like this," she said. "I'm a shy person. But it's my obligation to get this sport known."
The obligation has yielded some rewards. While other Olympic competitors scrimp and save for training, Weinbrecht is sponsored from head to toe by ski equipment companies. She is sure to be a staple on the ski show circuit after the Olympics. With her straw-colored hair, blue eyes and warm smile, Weinbrecht commands attention in a crowd.
When Weinbrecht began skiing at Vernon Valley in New Jersey 15 years ago, few racers took moguls seriously. They wanted to race the downhill or the giant slalom. But Weinbrecht, like a kid driving a family car to the mall, was attracted to ruts, bumps and ice.
"There were a couple of us who liked the sport," she said. "We were like a rat pack, going from race to race in the East."
When she was 18, her father built a house in Killington, Vt., and the family headed north for ski weekends. Weinbrecht eventually conquered Killington's tough "Outer Limits" mogul run.
Art, not skiing, was her first love. She attended the Ridgewood School of Art in Mahwah, N.J., studying to be a fashion designer. Had the school not closed in 1985, Weinbrecht might be designing Olympic uniforms rather than wearing one.
"I like abstract art," she said. "Everyone says it must be so easy slapping paint down. You could reach a conservative level, but you need something more. You could create a mess or art. In skiing, it's the same way. You reach a level, you go for more."
She stayed on the slopes, refining her art for two years before winning the first of her four national titles in 1988.
"A lot of people just get by in life," she said. "They really don't chase their dreams."
After dominating her sport for the past three years, Weinbrecht dreams of winning an Olympic gold medal. The first woman to complete a triple maneuver while launched 10 feet above a mogul is prepared to bring her style to a world stage.
"We suppress a lot of emotions in skiing," she said. "To remain focused, to have tunnel vision, that's all part of the game. I have my plan down. I have my feet on the ground."
G; Air Weinbrecht is about to be launched at the Olympics.