Weinbrecht takes bumpy ride to gold, but that's no hot dog

February 14, 1992|By Dave Anderson | Dave Anderson,New York Times News Service

TIGNES, France -- To most people, a mogul is what Jack Kent Cooke is and what Donald Trump was. But in the Winter Olympics, a mogul is a bump in the snow.

Freestyle mogul skiing is a wild ride over dozens of snowy bumps that demands the delicate balance of a surfer, the reckless daring of a ski jumper, the thumping rhythm of a disco dancer, and the shock absorbers of an amusement-park bumper car.

Donna Weinbrecht's definition is "the motocross of winter." Since she is the sport's first Olympic gold medalist, nearly an hour ahead of the men's winner, Edgar Grospiron of France, her definition deserves to be accepted by the next Webster's dictionary.

By then maybe freestyle mogul skiing also will have been accepted for what it is: a valid athletic event.

In the beginning, skiing purists considered it a "hot dog" derivation of the real thing. Some still sneer. But it's really a new creation of mountain sausage that doesn't need mustard, ketchup, relish, onions or chili. It tastes just fine all by itself.

Remember that when luge arrived as an Olympic medal sport in 1964 as a young cousin of bobsled, people laughed. But nobody laughs now.

And when the history of American freestyle mogul skiing is written, 26-year-old Donna Weinbrecht deserves to be the first chapter.

In most sports, the system coddles potential Olympic champions. But growing up in West Milford, N.J., about 30 miles from the George Washington Bridge, she did it all herself.

She skied at Hidden Valley and Highcrest Lake before dropping out of art school.

"I never went to the sharp pencil and a ruler," she has said. "I headed more toward the abstract. That's me."

In the winter, she worked as a waitress in Killington, Vt., which she describes as a "feeding ground for mogul skiers." Her father, a builder, had constructed a family ski lodge there.

"In Killington," she recalled with a laugh, "I only had to pay for heat and the phone."

But she wasn't allowed in the Eastern championships because she didn't have a coach. And her mother wondered if she should go back to art school. Then in 1987, she made the United States freestyle team. In 1990, she was the World Cup champion. And as the reigning world champion, she was the favorite yesterday.

"The pressure was there, I couldn't fool myself," she was saying now as thick snowflakes melted on her face and long blond hair. "I was expected to win. My thoughts were on the kids who wrote letters. To be brave. To be right here and now, not somewhere else. Ski right there. Be in the gate. Be ready to go."

Her gold medal was considered a given. But she had remembered that many assumed Debi Thomas would win the 1988 women's figure-skating gold.

"They kept saying that Debi was supposed to win," Weinbrecht said not long ago, "By the time she hit the ice, it had gotten to her."

Nothing got to Donna Weinbrecht except her expertise. With French rock music blasting and splotches of blue dye marking the course to help the skiers' vision during a high-noon snowstorm, she bounced down a snowy slope pitched at 28 degrees for 270 yards. Six or seven bumps at the start, then a quick jump, a stretch of about 50 more bumps, then another quick jump before the final six or seven bumps.

But as the next-to-last of eight finalists, Weinbrecht had to wait for Raphaelle Monod of France, the world champion she dethroned. French cheers and French flags beseeched their heroine to win. But near the bottom, Monod skidded off the course.

Donna Weinbrecht had joined Bonnie Blair, the winner of the 500-meter speed skate, as the only American gold-medal winners. But they haven't met.

"She's an extraordinary lady; we were finalists for the Sullivan Award last year," Weinbrecht said, referring to the annual vote on the United States' outstanding amateur athlete. "But I couldn't attend the dinner. I was working. And now I feel like I did my job."

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