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It has been nine years since the Miracle of Lake Placid, so the American crowd was a bit rusty. But as Tamara McKinney raised her skis over her head in triumph, the cry washed over the snow-covered mountain as it had filled the little hockey arena in upstate New York.

"U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"The day was more than the American fans had a right to expect, and so the visitors from 42 countries smiled as the home team celebrated winning the first gold medal of the World Alpine Ski Championships.

"When I crossed the finish line, I didn't know I had won. But the roar of the crowd told me," McKinney said after her third-place finish in Thursday's downhill, factored with her second in Sunday's slalom, earned her the gold in the women's combined. "This is a very good start for the championships."

At age 26 and with 11 seasons spent skiing the race trails - pistes, as the Europeans call them - McKinney is one of the old hands in women's competition. She also is one of the most popular, particularly with European racers and fans.

"I'm very pleased for Tamara," combined runnerup Vreni Schneider of Switzerland said. "She's a great girl and she deserves to do well for once."

Brigitte Oertli of Switzerland, who won the combined bronze, added: "I've skied a long time with her on the World Cup and she'd never won a medal other than a bronze in the championships. I think she's nice, and I think everyone is happy for her."

Because the combined is a hybrid event, racers had to complete the two slalom runs on Sunday just to qualify for Thursday's downhill portion. Twenty-two managed that, with Schneider the leader after winning the slalom by .12 seconds. But she realized she was in trouble when McKinney's training times in the downhill were about two seconds faster, more than enough of a margin to give the American a gold to add to the bronze combined medals she'd won in the 1985 and 1987 championships.

McKinney was taking no chances on race day, and merely threw the best downhill of her life at the Swiss superstar. McKinney's time of 1 minute, 32.10 seconds was only .40 seconds behind race winner Kerrin Lee of Canada and, more importantly, a whopping 1.84 seconds ahead of Schneider.

Oertli's time of 1:31.99 got her second place in the downhill and moved her to third overall, bumping Yugoslavia's Mateja Svet to fourth after being third in the slalom.

"I like the (Vail) downhill," McKinney said. "I like the bumps and turns. It was technical and it was difficult for me because I'm not used to having that high speed coming into turns like that. It was a great day.

"Someone," she added with a look to the sky, "was helping me out today."

Based on her practice runs, "I felt like I had a good run on the top section," McKinney said. "Just coming under the chair lift, a turn I had been doing well in training, I was a little wide. When I felt my line was that far out, I was much more aggressive on the bottom section because I thought I had to make up some time."

All she had to make up, as it turned out, was a victory speech, and it was one that has been heard before.


Other words were used to express the frustration of the men downhillers, who endured a second day of weather-related interruptions. Only a handful of men trained on Wednesday before high winds forced cancellation of both practice sessions, and no training was held Thursday because of gusts.

Officials debated Thursday whether to switch the dates of the men's and women's championship downhills to allow the men an extra day of practice. The men are scheduled to race Saturday, the women Sunday.

Today's schedule had the men going for their first medal in the downhill portion of the combined at Beaver Creek, with the women conducting two practice runs on the downhill course at Vail.