- by Ann Bennett
Skiing at the Top - Abbi Fisher
Abbi Fisher's diminutive size belies her unbelievable physical condition, and staying in shape is an obsession. The season hardly ends when the snow goes out of the mountains - her schedule continues in a whirlwind of activity. Abbi is also an ideal emissary for the sport of skiing - polite and articulate - though her restless presence indicates she'd rather be out biking or climbing than talking about athletics.
Since the conclusion of the World Cup circuit last March, Abbi's been doing just that. She's climbed and skied in Peru, tested equipment for various manufacturers, free skied in Europe and New Zealand, and trained in Sun Valley. For the last several weeks, however, she's been in residence at the family home in South Conway, settling for techni-skiing on the Kancamagus Highway, and collecting her thoughts before heading off for another winter of World Cup competition.
Contemplating Abbi's career leads one to consider the essential nature of luck in the world of competitive skiing. Surely all world class racers are superior athletes - few are better at their vocation than Abbi - and all strive for those flawless runs that translate into World Cup and Olympic victories. Injuries, however, occur with little rhyme or reason, and there is no doubt that Abbi Fisher has been plagued by more than her share. An ankle problem and two badly damaged knees toppled her from the pinnacle of the sport during the winter of 1978-79, the season of her World Cup slalom victory at Piancavallo, Italy, and the fact that she has worked her way back into top physical form is a measure of her internal fortitude.
Abbi, like most premiere racers, has been on skis since a tender age, and for her, racing was an inevitable evolution of the sport. "I was skiing at three, and once you'd run a mountain up and down, up and down, you naturally began to run gates for fun," she recalled. "Racing was just the next step."
Abbi quickly worked her way up through the levels of the local junior racing program, and continues success meant that she began to travel and race more widely. By her early teens, keeping up school attendance and skiing came into direct conflict, so she transferred to the Stratton Mountain School in Vermont. There, at the ripe age of 17, she was named to the US A team in 1974. Though she did eventually graduate from Stratton, "I was never in school much," she admits.
Abbi doesn't recall ever really aspiring to a position on the team. "On the contrary," she said, "it just sort of happened. Actually, several of the team members were having such problems with their coaches and staff, that I was quite content to stay at Stratton," she continued. Following 2nd and 3rd place finishes at Pats Peak and Whiteface with most of the national team present, however, Abbi was asked to travel with the A squad. As she points out, "It was hard to turn down once they started to pick up my expenses, so I said 'Fine, you pay my way.'" They've been paying it ever since.
She quickly discovered that beneath the glossy exterior, traveling and racing around the world could be a grinding existence. "It sounds like a glamorous lifestyle, and it is in a way," she remarked. "We do a lot of traveling, see a lot of places and meet people. But it's exhausting, and you never really see the places in depth. You're on the hill and training, and then back to the hotel to eat and sleep," she continued. "We often travel in the afternoon and evening, so we don't see a great deal, and races, especially in Europe, are far apart. It's quite a routine - Europe, The States, out West, Anchorage, Japan, and back to Europe. It's really wearing mentally and physically, and once you get tired, it's hard to catch up."
But Abbi proved she possessed the endurance to excel in world class racing, turing in several outstanding performances in 1976, her first year of World Cup competition. Although a leg injury sidelined her in late January, and she was out of action until March, Abbi still finished the season tied for the 27th position overall.
1977 was more satisfactory by far. Abbi scored a second at Val d'Isere in the giant slalom, took third at Sun Valley and fifth in Japan. She was also winner of the European Cup at Grundenwald, finished the season tied for fifth in the giant slalom, and 13th in the slalom. She was 17th overall on the World Cup tour, two positions ahead of Cindy Nelson.
Injuries interfered again in early 1978. Abbi hurt her ankle in January, and was out for the US Alpine Championships and the FIS World Championships. She recovered her form late in the season, however, and finished the year a remarkable 15th overall. But in the early weeks of the 1978-79 season she put it all together, taking the slalom at Piancavallo in mid-December. It was Abbi's first World Cup victory, and the first European World Cup win for an American woman in four years. It was also the beginning of an excellent season, though it came to an abrupt end in March when Abbi badly damaged both knees in a fall at Whiteface Mountain on the same course and weekend that Phil Mahre took his historic tumble. Abbi underwent surgery on both legs, and the ensuing months were devoted to physical therapy and a strenuous weight program. By late summer, she was back on skis.
Recovering from major surgery was as much a mental struggle as physical, Abbi admits. "At first, it was tough psychologically," she said. "You just don't know what your limits are, and it takes a while to establish confidence in your physical abilities." There were also the pressures of an Olympic year, and much to her dismay, Abbi again strained a knee just prior to Lake Placid. She competed in the slalom anyway, but skied out of the course during her second run.
The 1980 season hardly ended with the Olympics, and Abbi came back to finish 4th in three races after Lake Placid, and take 10th overall in the World Cup slalom. This upbeat conclusion is an indication of her resiliency, and as she heads into this winter, her attitude is one of high hopes. Abbi has shed the knee brace she wore much of last year, and remarked, "I think my knees are as good as they'll ever be. I don't have complete range and probably won't again, but to me they feel much better than last year. Almost normal."
Although her best finishes to date have been in the slalom and giant slalom, she is also an accomplished downhill racer, and prior to her accident in March of 1979, Abbi had made her way into the top World Cup seeds. Her devotion to the sport is evident in the fact that despite her vulnerable knees, Abbi will be running downhill again this winter. "I didn't train for a full year in the downhill, and I really missed it," she noted. "This winter I'll ski a few selected downhills - turning, technical courses on hard snow. It's always been one of my favorite events whether I did well or not. I probably won't make it back into the top seeds, but I can score a lot of combined points."
It is this synthesis of devotion and a desire to achieve that set her apart, and they are the basis for Abbi's success as a ski racer. "I'm really sports oriented," she pointed out, "and I've always trained really hard. Consequently, I'm strong and aggressive. Putting the two together, I've been able to excel at skiing."
Abbi anticipates a very good year for the US Women's Team. Anchored by veteran racer Cindy Nelson and herself, the squad also has bright hopes for young New Hampshirites Heidi Preuss and Holly Flanders. Still, Abbi is often asked why the American teams fail to produce top results as consistently as the Europeans, and in response she points to the different status accorded the sport abroad. "Skiing in Europe is comparable to football in America. Everyone skis, and racers like Franz Klammer are national heroes. More Europeans know who I am than Americans," she elaborated. "They have more of a pool of racers to draw on, and they certainly receive more support from their governments."
On the other hand, we have to piece together our support, especially in a post-Olympic year," Abbi continued. "It doesn't really hurt the A Team as much as the Junior Team, which has to pay their own way. It's sad to see. These kids have to dish out a lot of money, and it's a distraction when they should be concentrating on their skiing. We need to help our young skiers more."
Abbi projects that she may work with young skiers herself some day, but declines to look too far into the future. "I'm taking it year by year now. As long as my body, first, and my mind, second, stay together, I'll continue to race," she reflected. "It's hard to say when it will end. My body may fall apart before my interest fades. As soon as my knees start to bother me it isn't worth it any longer. I'd rather walk for the rest of my life than ski one more race."
After that, the possibilities are endless, especially for a young woman of 23 who has devoted so much time and energy to her sport. "I have a lot of thoughts and there are many things I want to do," she said. "I'm just not sure which one will come first. There's school, hiking, climbing. I'd like to take a trip to Yosemite and I'm thinking of doing a little coaching next summer. I'm not sure of the order it will fall into, only that life will be very different."
In the meantime, she'll continue to ski with the single minded purpose that has marked her career, trying to stay in shape both mentally and physically. "That's the key to successful racing," she concluded. "If your head is in the right place, you can do really well. But you have to be aggressive and anxious, and ski well technically. It's hard to be perfect, but that's what you're striving for - to put together that errorless run. It's difficult, but you know when you do, it's going to be a winner."