Irene Epple spent most of this season skiing in the shadow of Switzerland's spectacular young Erika Hess, but suddenly in a dramatic late turn of events it is the veteran West German racer who stands poised to crown her own career with a World Cup championship.
''I think I have a good chance now,'' Epple said after a big recent performance at Waterville Valley, N. H., pulled her to within striking distance.
''It may very well go down to the last race,'' she added, eyeing the four remaining events on the calendar.
That wasn't how it looked for the greater part of the winter, as Hess built an apparently commanding lead. The 19-year-old Swiss racer climaxed her season by winning three gold medals at the world championships in Austria, and seemed ready to step forward as the new queen of the slopes.
When the ''white circus'' crossed the Atlantic for the North American phase of the competition, Hess still led by a fairly comfortable margin in the season-long race for World Cup points. But Epple, now in top form after some early season problems, was closing in.
The turning point (if indeed Epple does win out) came at Waterville Valley in the final races before the trip back to Europe. Hess fell in her slalom specialty, while Epple picked up seven points via a ninth place finish. Then Epple won the giant slalom, while Hess again failed to score. When the dust had cleared and the pocket calculators had done their work, Irene had gained 17 points and trailed just 277-274.
Did she think, as the evidence seemed to suggest, that she was coming on while Hess was perhaps slipping a bit?
''I can't say about her,'' Epple replied, ''but I feel I'm skiing well now - and I know I can do even better.
''It's a very, very long season, and nobody can be at the top for 30 races spread out over so many months,'' she added. And she didn't dispute the thought that she seems to have peaked at the right time.
The 24-year-old Epple began skiing at age five, and recalls that her first race was a school event that very same year. She reached the World Cup circuit at 15, and has been one of its mainstays ever since.
Among her career highlights have been a third in the overall women's standings in 1979 and a silver medal in the Olympic giant slalom at Lake Placid, but she said winning the World Cup ''would surely be the high point.''
One factor in Epple's favor is that she still has more room to score via the complicated point system under which a skier may count only her best five results in each event. Irene outscored Hess in the downhill, which is over, while each has earned almost the maximum allowable points in her specialty (slalom for Hess; giant slalom for Epple).
Thus in the final four races the title will probably be decided on the basis of which one does better in her lesser event. And here Epple, because she has earned almost all of her points in downhill and giant slalom, can still score in the slalom by finishing anywhere in the top 15. Meanwhile the only way Hess can improve her total is by winning a slalom or coming in first or second in a giant slalom.
Epple still has to capitalize on her advantage, either this weekend at Alpe d'Huez, France, or in the season finale March 25-28 at Sansacario, Italy, but given her current form plus the mathematical probabilities, it seems likely that she will.
And what then?
''I'd like to ski in one more Olympics,'' she said. ''I think I'll keep going until 1984. But that will probably be it for me. I've already been skiing and racing for almost 20 years, and that's a pretty long time.'' US women tops on slopes
The US women's ski team, while it has no individual World Cup contender, appears certain to outscore all other countries in the race for points toward the prestigious Nations Cup.
Unfortunately, from the US viewpoint, there is only one cup, given for combined men's and women's totals. And the US men, despite the presence of World Cup winner Phil Mahre and his twin brother Steve, lack the depth to be better than a distant third. This also leaves the United States third overall behind Austria and Switzerland, but should not obscure the tremendous feats of the women.
At the world championships they won four medals (three by Christin Cooper and one by Cindy Nelson). Even more important is the way they've been skiing as a group all winter, as exemplified at Waterville Valley. Tamara McKinney was third in the slalom, and Heidi Preuss 11th. Then in the giant slalom they placed an astonishing five finishers in the top 10 (McKinney again 3rd, Nelson 5th, Karen Lancaster 7th, Preuss 8th, and Cooper 10th), while Abbi Fischer was 15th.
''It was our best result ever in terms of having that number of skiers in the Top 10,'' exulted Chip Woods, a US coach. He also noted that the result was achieved primarily because of some surprisingly good results by younger skiers, offsetting a below-par showing by Cooper, who fell in the slalom and was well off her usual form in the giant slalom.
The US women now have 571 points compared to 536 for West Germany and 517 for Switzerland. Given the intricacies of the scoring system, they look like a strong probability to hold or even increase that lead - and an outside shot to add enough points to boost the United States into second place, or even an unprecedented first, in the overall standings.