Alpine glory in Sarajevo
February 21, 2014
Editor’s note: During the Olympic Games, the Vail Daily is featuring some local Olympians and their favorite Olympic moments. If you have suggestions, send them to email@example.com.
VAIL — John McMurtry proudly proclaims that during a Winter Olympics medal ceremony at the 1984 Sarajevo Games, he puddled up like a princess.
McMurtry was the most successful women’s alpine coach in U.S. Ski Team history, and his team had just won gold and silver in the women’s giant slalom, the best finish in U.S. alpine history.
He stood with his hand over his heart while the national anthem played and his eyes filled with tears. How could they not? That’s just American awesomeness leaking out.
“It was an incredible day. To go to the awards ceremony and hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was so emotional,” McMurtry said.
Debbie Armstrong won gold, Christin Cooper won silver, the first time American women had gone gold-silver. They were within a whisper of a sweep; Tamara McKinney was fourth, just four-tenths of a second out of third.
Phil and Steve Mahre won gold and silver in slalom for the men in Sarajevo, the first time ever for the Americans.
But let’s stay focused on McMurtry’s women. Like all coaches, he had some heart-in-your-throat moments.
Armstrong had two good runs to win gold. Cooper won the first run but almost fell during the second run on her way to silver. McKinney won the second run on her way to fourth place.
‘We Were Loaded’
And while the U.S. team took home the highest number of gold medals from Vancouver in 2010, Sarajevo saw the highest percentage. Fifty percent of all the alpine skiing gold medals earned in Sarajevo came back to the United States.
“We were loaded. The U.S. team was so deep,” McMurtry said.
U.S. women topped the World Cup giant slalom standings for three years.
The year before the Sarajevo Olympics, McKinney became the first American woman to win the overall World Cup title and also the World Cup slalom title. Local skiing legend Cindy Nelson was second. She was ranked No. 1 in the world when, in 1983, she tore her ACL during a race in Val d’Isere, France.
During McMurtry’s first visit to Sarajevo in 1983, he scored possibly the best lodging in town. Thanks to some connections, he stayed in an A-frame cabin about 30 yards from the GS start, classic proof that it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.
In the 1983 pre-Olympic World Cup race in Sarajevo, every team was assigned an interpreter. McMurtry’s team was assigned Alma, a young medical student, who, legend has it, was the daughter of Sarajevo’s mayor.
Alma made all the arrangements for housing and almost everything else. She also landed McMurtry in that cabin, where he stayed the entire two weeks. He was on 24-hour watch, planting an American flag like he was claiming it for the U.S.
“During the day, the athletes would come in and get warm between runs,” McMurtry said.
Of course, the place where McMurtry and his team had such amazing memories experienced both the best and the worst of humanity. It was an Olympic showplace, but a few years later, a horrible civil war reduced it to rubble. It has recovered to again become a vibrant city.
McMurtry and several others from that 1984 alpine team consistently corresponded with Alma, then war broke out and they lost all contact with her. No one has any idea what happened to her, he said.
McMurtry continued coaching the U.S. Ski Team until 1990.
He has been with the Steadman Philippon Research Institute in Vail for the last 20 years and serves as director of development.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.