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Swede ski-skates to nordic titles; new stars emerge on alpine tour

The Nordic World Championships are history; the Alpine World Championships begin (Jan. 31-Feb.10 at Bormio, Italy); and casual observers might reach these conclusions: Cross-country skiers no longer will be pictured in the classic diagonal stride -- one arm extended, the opposite leg thrust back in a forceful kick. Rather, they will now appear skating over the countryside, skinny skis askew, like Sweden's incredible Gunde Svan, winner of both the men's 30-kilometer and 50-kilometer races at the 1985 World Championships in Seefeld, Austria.

Marc Girardelli, who came from Austria but skis for Luxembourg, looks like this year's alpine World Cup champion, even though, until two weeks ago, Switzerland's Pirmin Zurbriggen was proving he is the best all-round ski racer since Karl Schranz.

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Michela Figini of Switzerland, at the tender age of 18, not only appears likely to win the women's World Cup but could be the best female ski racer since Austria's Annemarie Proell, who perennially took home the cup between 1971 and 1975, and again after she came out of retirement in 1979.

The Americans are in trouble, though perhaps not as deep trouble as their rather dismal record this season might indicate.

Taking the items in order . . .

Svan removed any lingering doubts that he is today's top cross-country ski racer with his dominance at Seefeld. He won the 30 km. in frigid temperatures, on rototilled snow that was impossible to wax for. Instead, he and most of the field merely used paraffin and skated over the course.

Skating has been a controversial technique, even banned on parts of the course; purists like the Norwegians and, ironically, Svan himself, have held that it isn't really cross-country skiing.

But if conditions are such that you can go faster skating than striding, skaters will be the faster skiers -- and who's to say Svan isn't. After winning the 30 km. and finishing fifth in the 15 km., he easily won the grueling 50 km. in a swirling snowstorm Sunday. ``Now, I want to win everything,'' he admitted after the race.

Defending World Cup champion Zurbriggen has won 12 World Cup races, proving himself a great technical racer -- and two weeks ago he won a pair of downhills back-to-back on the dreaded Hahnenkamm at Kitzbuhel, Austria. The steep course was as dangerously icy and mean as many observers could remember. In winning the second downhill, however, Zurbriggen injured his knee on a tough compression in the course. He is sidelined for at least a few weeks while his World Cup lead has been surrendered to the dynamic Girardelli.

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Repeatedly winning in slalom and a threat in giant slalom, Girardelli won Sunday's super giant slalom (a long race containing several jumps) at Garmisch, West Germany. He goes into the break for the World Championships 33 World Cup points ahead of Liechtenstein's Andreas Wenzel, who is now in third place in the World Cup chase. Because Girardelli does not ski for his own country, he is banned from skiing in the World Championships.

Figini is the first woman to win three World Cup downhills in a row since another Swiss, Marie-Theres Nadig, did it four years ago. Michela has won both giant slaloms and super giant slaloms too, giving the teen-ager a comfortable lead in the chase for the World Cup.

Now as the ``white circus'' adjourns to Bormio for 10 days, Figini's confidence level seems to be approaching her ability level. Someone may have to win a lot of slaloms to stop her from eventually taking the World Cup.

There's no denying the Americans have had their problems this season. The men slalom and giant slalom skiers seem fortunate to finish a race between 20th and 30th place. But the downhill squad shows promise, particularly the young Vermonter Doug Lewis. Olympic downhill gold medalist Bill Johnson has had a slow start, but he has been improving and just might come into his own at Bormio.

And while the US women's alpine team has not set any records this season, there are a couple of hopeful signs. Defending World Cup slalom champion Tamara McKinney looks like she might be getting ready to make her annual late-season charge. She has been skiing well more consistently, finishing second in the Arosa, Switzerland, slalom last weekend. Young skiers like Eva Twardokens and Diann Roffe also have produced improving performances.

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