MERIBEL, France -- They came slashing down this mountain that was covered in a milky-white mist of fog and snow. There were Swiss and Germans and French and Austrians.
Stuck in their tucks and their helmets, they looked like a bunch of Volkswagen bugs on skis. One by one they appeared over the ridge and rumbled to this bowl, where a crowd of 15,000 was waiting and cheering and clanging cowbells.
This was to be Europe's race, this women's downhill at the Winter Olympics. And these were Europe's champions.
There was a Zurbriggen, a Kronberger, a Seizinger, a Merle.
But from nowhere, came this Canadian, and then this American.
The cheering stopped. The cowbells were put away. The North Americans had crashed this party on snow.
Kerrin Lee-Gartner and Hilary Lindh schussed into town and took over the downhill.
Lee-Gartner, 25, of Calgary, Alberta, won the gold with a time of 1 minute, 52.55 seconds. Lindh, 21, of Juneau, Alaska, took the silver in 1:52.61, becoming the fourth U.S. woman to win an Olympic downhill medal.
The only European on the medal stand was Austria's Veronika Wallinger, who earned the bronze in 1:52.64.
"Imagine what it would be like if Tokyo won the World Series," U.S. women's coach Paul Major said. "They treat us like dogs over here. They put us in second-class hotels. They give us rotten food. The Italians and the Austrians and the Germans always expect to win. It's a great day for us. We can compete in this league."
It was a big-league show all the way.
Lee-Gartner was all quiet emotion, afterward, talking about her love of Canada, her disappointment of finishing 15th in the 1988 Calgary Games, her desire to finish and win.
"It's all kind of overwhelming," she said, as a crowd of reporters, fans, policemen, cameramen and volunteers pressed around her.
"The approach I took was all or nothing," she said. "There was no way to ski well and come in fifth. I was aiming for the podium."
She got there. So did Lindh.
"I've been thinking about this for a few years," she said. "This was the time to make everything happen."
The American skiers were rotten in Calgary. They suffered injuries and crashes and didn't get a medal.
They promised these Games would be different.
And then Lindh took this wild ride on a course that stretched 2,705 meters, that dropped 828 meters in elevation, and that gave everyone the longest, most treacherous test on snow.
There was this bump called "Noodles," that had the Americans breaking apart in mid-air during practices. Kristin Krone broke a hand while competing in the downhill portion of the women's combined event. Wendy Fisher also crashed. After all the accidents, race officials shaved the bump a bit for the downhill.
"I couldn't figure out why people had any problems on that bump," Lindh said. "You have to do your own thing."
At 5 feet 9, 165 pounds, she was strong enough to attack this slope. But she also had the experience to cope with a winding section while retaining her speed.
Lindh has one of these careers built on expectations. A junior world champion in 1986, she has been on the World Cup circuit since she turned 17.
"Not a very smart move," she said. "I struggled all the time."
She blew out her right knee on a run in Norway in 1987, and the ligament damage was so severe there were fears she would never race again.
"Hilary is the star of my highlight film on knee surgery," said Dr. Richard Steadman, the U.S. Ski Team orthopedic surgeon. "I guess she's now the superstar of the film."
Lindh is the superstar because everything came together on one day. Austria's Petra Kronberger, the favorite and combined champion, finished fifth. And Switzerland's Heidi Zurbriggen was called back to the start after her teammate, Chanta Bournissen, crashed and wound up 10th.
So this path was cleared, and Lindh blasted down the mountain. And afterward, she said how strange it all was.
Last year, on Jan. 18, the U.S. team was here for a World Cup, and the Gulf war broke out. And suddenly, American skiers were wearing their jackets inside out, and advised to leave town at 3 in the morning.
"We packed up real quick," Lindh said. "It was really weird. One day, we're thinking about negotiating a turn. The next, we're changing our plane tickets. We did the right thing."
Strange, how it all worked out. Yesterday, fans were waving American flags at the bottom of a women's downhill course in a little resort village tucked in the French Alps. And a skier from Alaska was holding a bouquet of roses, holding a silver medal.
L "I'm surprised," Lindh said. "But this is not unbelievable."