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  • Ann Bennett

Downhill Sets pace for Pro Tour

Imagine attaining speed in excess of 70 miles an hour, with nothing but a pair of 223 cm. downhill skis and a thin body suit between you and a hard-packed surface of snow - and relishing the experience.

David Currier, of Madison, is one of those rare individuals who not only enjoys it, but who is good enough to make it his livelihood. "Surprisingly, you feel very much in control during a good downhill run, and the only way I could describe the sensation is a sort of serenity," he reflected recently. "There's a real sense of floating once you reach maximum speed."

Twenty-seven-year-old Currier learned to ski under the auspices of the Eastern Slope Ski Club and its Junior Program, and began racing early. After graduation from Kennett High School, he went on to Dartmouth College, but took a leave of absence during his freshman year to try out for the U.S. Ski Team, which he made in the fall of 1971. Among his many accomplishments during a six-year stint on the "A" squad were a couple of top 10 World Cup finishes, the Canadian National downhill title, and the U.S. giant slalom and combined titles. David competed in the 1972 Olympics at Sapporo, but missed the 1976 games because of a cracked tibia. During that period he also managed to sandwich in semesters at Dartmouth and two years of duty in the U.S. Army.

Three years ago, David left the amateur ranks to join the World Pro Ski Tour. Coincidentally, that year, 1977, was also the season WPS added downhill to its dual slalom racing. After a decade of concentrating on downhill, he now skis slalom and giant slalom as well. The downhill is still his specialty, though, and David was the top ranked American downhiller on the tour in both 1977-78 and 78-79.

He did discover that WPS downhill differs substantially from World Cup, but in many ways finds it to his liking. "The course is only half the length - so the runs are half the time - somewhere under a minute, rather than a minute and a half to two," he stated. "But there are also two runs rather than one, which really adds to the excitement." Like WPS slalom and giant slalom, 32 racers succeed in eliminations, though only the fastest 16 run in the finals, where they race in reverse order, the slowest times first. "You really don't know who has the race until the final round is over," David noted, "and it puts a lot of pressure on you, Even if your first run was very good, you then have to sit up top and wait your turn, knowing exactly how fast a time you'll need to win."

The downhill has proved crucial for many skiers on the WPS tour, may of whom, unlike David, were slalom or giant slalom specialists during their amateur careers. "In the beginning, the seasoned pros were at a real disadvantage," David explained, "since many of them hadn't run downhill for five or six years. Most have caught up, though." He also pointed out that the introduction of downhill hurt some pros more than others, particularly Josef Odermatt. The Swiss star, who was third in his first pro season, and second the next three, was riding a hot streak in 1977-78 when the downhill came in. He chose not to compete, assuming his slalom skills would be sufficient to captures the WPS title. On the other hand, rookie Andre Arnold gave downhill the nod, and skied his way to the pro championship, leaving Odermatt in second place once again.

Another pro who has opted not to run downhill is Lonnie Vanatta, currently in second place in the overall standings behind Arnold, 200 points to 140. "Lonnie is having a great year, but downhill will keep him from the WPS title," David predicted. "Even if Arnold only gets five or 10 points in each downhill, that equals an awfully good weekend of racing."

Several other seasoned pros will be running downhill, though, among them Walter Tresch and Hans Hinterseer. Tresch, a Swiss World Cup great and silver medalist in the 1972 Olympics, won last year's WPS downhill title, capturing three out of five events. Combined with a trio of second place finished in dual slaloms, he ended 1979 in second place overall. Hinterseer won one downhill title last winter, finished third overall, and was named Rookie of the Year. Other pros to watch include Patrice Pellat-Finet of France, fourth last year in the downhill, Franz Weber, who was sixth, and Juan Olivieri and Carlos Martinez of Argentina, 10th and 11th respectively in 1979.

This season's first downhill, held in Aspen in December, was captured by an unheralded rookie, however, young George Ager of Austria. Ager, 21, is a slalom specialist recently off the Austrian "C" Team, but beat Walter Tresch by a full half second for their two run combined time. David, following an excellent first run, took a spectacular spill on his second, but fortunately came up unscathed. "It was quite a fall, and there's no question that sometimes it's hard to bounce back from something like that," he stated. "It takes awhile to regain your concentration. Luckily, I had the Christmas break."

As far as the eventual outcome in the overall WPS standing, David feels that it is highly unlikely that Andre Arnold will be dethroned, and that the Austrian star will win an unprecedented third straight title. "Neither will he win as consistently this season, however," David added. "The competition is too keen. You can see how close the field is each week just in the qualifying times." The WPS tour resumes this weekend at Hunter Mountain, New York, with eight other stops before the finals at Mammoth Mountain, California, in late March.

While a few veteran pros will surely find their way into the finals each weekend, David also foresees a strong showing from this year's crop of rookies. The Aspen Slalom, for example, was captured by Peter Dodge, of Vermont, a seven-year member of the U.S. "B" Team who had recently turned pro. "It was no fluke that he won, either," David remarked. "Peter is typical of some young skiers who for many reasons just never do that well under the tight discipline of a national team, though they seem to open up once they're on their own." Another good example, of course, is Andre Arnold, who, dissatisfied with his situation on the Austrian "B" Team, turned pro and won the WPS title in his rookie season.

David also feels that the 1980 Olympics will effect the WPS tour, since some national team members will certainly turn pro after Lake Placid. "They won't be a factor in the overall title, but one of them could win a few races," he said. "On the other hand, the dual slalom format is far different than World Cup racing, and it can be difficult to adjust to at first."

David, currently ranked 29th in the WPS standings, admits to having gotten off to a slow start this winter, but anticipates a comeback once the tour resumes at Hunter. "I'm in top shape," he said. "I'd have to be to think about getting into a pair of downhill skis - and there are still four of five downhills to go." David also remarked that Hunter and Stowe have always been good races for him, since the snow conditions are similar to those he grew up with.

As far as winning a race, he remarked that on any given weekend, it could be almost any WPS racer. "Winning is a matter of attitude," David said. "We are all so close technically, and as far as conditioning, that it all comes down to what you believe you can do. If I had to point to one reason why someone like Peter Dodge wins a race, it would be just that - attitude, and because he's fresh," David continues. "Age doesn't have that much to do with winning, at least not until you reach your thirties. Age is a relative condition - it's more mental with a ski racer. I don't think you lose your speed or reflexes as much as you just get tired. Not of racing, but of the travel, delays, bad weather and connections. There's no question that it take great discipline to stay in shape mentally,"

Still, David admits that he's seen a glimpse of the end of his own racing career, though he feels there are three or four good years left. "For one thing, I've been really lucky as far as injuries, and that has added to my longevity," he noted. "Though I've cracked my tibia twice and dislocated my shoulder, I've never had knee trouble or a major fracture," he added, knocking on a wooden table.

"After I do stop, who knows?" David said, though he remarked that business school is a definite possibility. That would mean settling down and attending classes full time, however, something he's never managed before. Between training and racing, it took him nine years before receiving a B.A. in economics from Dartmouth last fall.

Another interest is coaching, and David feels the chances are very good that he'll stay in the East. But he's definitely leaving all options open until his racing career is over. "I want to continue as long as I'm enjoying myself and staying competitive," he said. "There are many peripheral things surrounding the competition, but the racing itself is an entirely different experience - and it's so, so short."

NOTE: David Currier's son Lyman Currier competed in halfpipe in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

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