Over Bumps, Sky Is Their Limit Winter Olympics

February 08, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- First, Donna Weinbrecht raced for the fun. Then the glory. And then the money.

But with an Olympic gold medal tucked away in a safe deposit box, she realized there was more to competing in freestyle mogul skiing than simply collecting prizes.

Fifteen months ago, Weinbrecht, Mistress of the Moguls, was on crutches, lugging around a right knee that was a mass of scar tissue and ripped ligaments. Now, she is trying to reclaim her title at the 1994 Winter Olympics.

"I thought I would quit after 1992," she said. "I thought I had nothing left to win, that I couldn't dig out anything more. But the injury gave me a challenge. And it gave me a second chance."

Weinbrecht is making the most of that second chance. The 1992 Olympic champion is skiing for fun again and aiming to win

again. Forget the money. Forget the sponsors. Forget even the medals. Every day on the slopes is one extra day in a career that began oddly enough in New Jersey, and is likely to wind up in triumph on a cold slope in Norway.

"I get up on the course and say, 'Oh my gosh, my poor body,' " Weinbrecht said. "I've got 28-year-old knees. Everything hurts. But everything is fun again."

Fun is the whole point of mogul skiing. Rock 'n' roll music blares in the background, and the skiers come barreling down a course of bumps, looking like goggled, Lycra-covered Gumbys. They race for time and they race to entertain, compiling style points while performing quick turns and graceful aerial maneuvers.

And Weinbrecht is the best mogul skier ever. Not bad for someone who calls herself a "Jersey girl" at heart.

Raised in a state without an Alp, a Rocky or even a Pocono, Weinbrecht cut her skiing teeth at the Vernon Valley slope in New Jersey, and later put in serious training in Killington, Vt.

While others mastered the downhill or the slalom, Weinbrecht was attracted to the gargantuan bumps of the moguls.

"When you get a good run, you just know it," she said. "All you can say is 'Ya-hoo!' "

Weinbrecht became the first star of the fledgling World Cup circuit and was the favorite in the 1992 Olympics when the moguls made their medal debut. She did not disappoint herself or her sport, racing down the course to the Ramones' "Rock 'n Roll High School" and winning the gold.

"I was really in a daze," she said.

She came back to America a heroine. Visited the White House. Appeared on the David Letterman show. Even received a parade in her hometown of West Milford, N.J.

"Someone had a sign, 'We love you and wish you were our daughter,' " Weinbrecht said.

Burned out but not yet ready to retire, Weinbrecht continued to ski.

But on a cold November day in Breckenridge, Colo., in 1992, her career changed forever. Performing a signature split move, she landed awkwardly and her right leg locked.

"It was extremely painful for a second and then it was gone and there was no pain," she said. "That was not good."

Weinbrecht had torn her right anterior cruciate ligament, and her season was over.

"I really believed I was going to get out of the sport without any injury," she said. "But it didn't happen."

Recuperating, off the slopes for seven months, Weinbrecht's zest for skiing was renewed. Her confidence soared during a preseason training camp run last November, when she beat her teammates and was awarded her greatest skiing prize of all -- a rubber duck.

"The little thing means a lot to me," she said. "I'm a person people would make fun of because I never got excited winning a World Cup or an Olympic medal. It was a big feat for me just to win that one training race. It made me feel good."

And then, right on schedule, she won the season's first World Cup race at the site of her Olympic triumph: Tignes, France.

"I've felt all along that this is the biggest leap of faith in my life," she said. "Everything now is just trusting in your ability."

When all else fails, though, she can run on memory. Injured, she couldn't help but pop a tape of her Olympic triumph into a VCR. She had to see it to believe that she had once been an Olympic champion.

"It was like I was looking at another person in my life," she said. "But it wasn't a fantasy. It was reality."

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