Coming into the 1989 World Championships at Vail, in the twilight of her career, Tamara McKinney was still looking for her first major Olympic or World Championship event win. That year, she finally found it.
It seems ironic that a ski racer who won 18 slalom and giant slalom World Cups in her career would reach a penultimate gold medal by virtue of a single downhill finish. That was the story of Tamara McKinney’s brilliant World Championship title in 1989 at Vail.
Throughout the ‘80s, McKinney stood out as one of ski racing’s biggest stars. After a podium finish in her very first World Cup in 1978 at the age of 17, she went on to win 18 World Cups – all slalom and giant slalom – and claimed three crystal globes. Her historic overall title in 1983 was the first for an American woman.
The drama of that 1983 World Cup overall crown played out in Vail. Earlier in the week, GS wins by teammate Phil Mahre in Aspen and then Vail had given him a third consecutive overall World Cup crown. Then, in a hard fought battle with her own teammate Cindy Nelson, McKinney claimed a GS win of her own in Vail and seemingly the title. But upon further review, it wasn’t quite enough to clinch. She would have to travel to Furano, Japan to seal the mathematics and take the overall title over Swiss Erika Hess, including a win in the final race of the season.
But her career had also been marked by injuries and tragedies, and just plain bad luck. Coming into the 1989 World Championships at Vail, in the twilight of her career, she was still looking for her first major Olympic or World Championship event win.
The U.S. Ski Team came into Vail on the heels of a medal-less Olympics in Calgary. After missing a medal in 1984 at Sarajevo by a single place, McKinney’s luck went south leading into Calgary, suffering a broken leg early in the season. While she came back to make the Olympic team, she failed to finish the GS or slalom.
Now, at the age of 26, the Kentucky-born skier from Squaw Valley was motivated to give it one more try to win a Championship title.
In a bit of unusual scheduling compared to today’s standards, the 1989 World Championships opened on Jan. 29 with the first half of the women’s combined – the slalom. The downhill was four days later.
McKinney took a huge first run lead over Swiss Vreni Schneider, but gave it up in the second with Schneider leading by .12. The more important data was the spread to the top downhillers – over two seconds to Austria’s Petra Kronberger and three back to Anita Wachter. Still, it would take a career best downhill from McKinney if she hoped to win.
McKinney’s career had been etched as a technical skier. She skied downhills as a part of combined and had achieved three World Cup downhill podiums -– the most recent five years earlier – and a pair of World Championship combined bronze medals. Still, it was a daunting task.
Race day dawned cold and windy. At nearby Beaver Creek, men’s downhill training was blown out that day. But the women were ready to race for gold down International in Vail.
McKinney watched and waited. As expected, Swiss Vreni Schneider kept her slalom lead followed closely by teammate Brigitte Oertli, rocketing into second from nearly four seconds back. Starting 16th, McKinney put her downhill poles over the start wand and pushed out – the final chance in her career to win a major title.
The eyes of America were on Tamara, arcing high speed turns in a bid for glory. “She had gold in her eyes when she sped past me,” said U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Paul Major. In the finish, the Swiss leaders held their breath – longing for silver and gold, but also knowing what this single run meant to McKinney.
McKinney had skied with confidence in the training runs leading up to race day. And while she lacked the experience of the Swiss and Austrian downhillers she faced that day, she skied with heart and pride in a final attempt to show that she was best in the world.
All down the course, McKinney’s split times told the story – she was in it, challenging Schneider at every interval. The noise from the American crowd was deafening. “I could hear the crowd all the way down,” she said in the finish.
As she crossed the finish line the clock told the story. Tamara McKinney was a World Champion. Despite the frostbite on her left foot from the Combined Slalom, the tears began to flow.
“Oh, my God,” she exclaimed. “I’m still trying to figure out what I did.” In an act of true sportsmanship, her rivals and fellow medalists Oertli and Schneider lifted McKinney on their shoulders. And there wasn’t an athlete in the finish that wasn’t sharing in the pride of Tamara McKinney – one of the greatest ski racers of all time.
McKinney went on to win bronze in the slalom to close out the 1989 Championships and her career. Today, the Hall of Famer looks back fondly on a star-studded career from her home near Lake Tahoe. Her trophy case displays a lifetime from the faded red ribbon and medal her mother saved for her since she won it at age four, to the gold and bronze medals McKinney won in Vail.
She remains very engaged in the sport as a coach and a parent, watching young daughter Francesca make her way up the ranks. And she carries with her the memory of that day in Vail when she became a World Champion.