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Johnson out, other big names struggling as US skiers eye Olympics

Who didn't make the United States Olympic Alpine ski team has made more news than who did, which tells you something about the state of American ski racing this winter. The most conspicuous name absent from the 18-member team named to compete in the Winter Games at Calgary Feb. 13-28 was defending men's downhill gold medalist Bill Johnson. The only American of either sex ever to win an Olympic downhill, Johnson has had one of the most disappointing post-gold medal careers in all of ski racing.

Flamboyant, boastful, controversial from the start, and forever at odds with his coaches, Johnson was severely injured at the start of last season. He lost the season but was determined to work his way back to championship form in this Olympic year. But he had never skied up to his 1984 form, even before his injury. And this season his best finish was a 33rd last month in a World Cup downhill at Leukerbad, Switzerland.

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He was no better than sixth or seventh among the struggling American male downhillers, according to US Alpine director Harald Schoenhaar. Although expressing sorrow about the situation - and saying, ``I am one of those people who are behind Bill Johnson a lot'' - Schoenhaar still said that ``it would not be fair'' to select Johnson over those who had beaten him. Schoenhaar did say he wished the Olympics followed the practice of the world championships, which seed defending champions into their events over and above the four slots given national teams.

Also not making the team announced here at the National Alpine Ski Championships Wednesday was veteran Mike Brown, who was the top-ranked US men's downhiller in World Cup standings (27th) at the end of last season.

``I never expected to be in this position,'' said a dejected Brown; ``I was surprised.'' He cited lack of faith in the downhillers by the coaches, injuries, and lack of good preparation with the skis at the beginning of the season as the main reasons for his and most of the team's disappointing results to date. Both he and Johnson vowed to beat the field in the national downhill here.

Of the nine men named to the team, the strongest hopeful is undoubtedly Felix McGrath, currently ranked 11th in World Cup slalom standings, with two seventh-place finishes (and an eighth in giant slalom). Fellow Vermonter Doug Lewis, bronze downhill medalist in the 1985 world championships, was also selected, even though he has been sidelined with an injury since early January.

Among the males in the hopeful category are 19-year-old A.J. Kitt, who had the top timed trial here in the downhill, and Jeff Olson, currently top-ranked US male downhiller. Other selectees are downhiller Bill Hudson and technical racers Jack Miller, Bob Ormsby, Sandy Williams, and Tiger Shaw - the latter joining Lewis as the only holdovers from 1984.

Those named to the women's team are former champions who have been struggling with injuries, bad results, or both - along with a number of young skiers who are beginning to show promise.

Tamara McKinney, who won the World Cup in 1983, came in third the next year, and has consistently been among the top American finishers throughout the 1980s, was named for the third time. She has been recovering from an ankle injury that kept her from competing since November, but Schoenhaar indicated that she has been skiing since the end of December and expects to be ready.

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Other well-known names on the squad include Debbie Armstrong, the surprise winner of the 1984 Olympic giant slalom at Sarajevo and the only other repeater along with McKiney; Pam Fletcher, the current top-ranked US skier; and Diann Roffe, who won the giant slalom gold medal at the 1985 world championships.

Others selected were Edith Thys, whose seventh in a World Cup race is the best of any US woman this season; Beth Madsen, winner of last year's national titles in giant slalom and combined; two 18-year-old world junior championship medalists, downhiller Hilary Lindh and slalom skier Heidi Voelker; and 19-year-old Kristin Krone, who was merely on the training team at the start of the season.

The ever-ebullient Fletcher, probably the best hope of either sex for a US skiing medal (in downhill or possibly super giant slalom), was optimistic and confident about the coming Olympics, despite all the disappointments the team has suffered this season. ``I think it's a good team. I think we've got good potential and - most important - [Calgary] is in our backyard. The Europeans will be here without their family and retinue of supporters. I know I'm much more relaxed when I ski in North America than when I ski in Europe.''

Nationals notes ... It has snowed every day or night here for the better part of a week. On the steep North Face, newly opened to lift-serviced skiing this winter, the snow is up to skiers' necks in parts. Powder is everywhere, but 200 volunteers have managed to keep the downhill course in excellent shape. Skiers who can get in via snowy roads or several airlines, which brave the low visibility, are enjoying some of the best skiing in years. ... This weekend the Nationals move to Copper Mountain, Colo., for the slalom and giant slalom.

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