Freestyle

Donna Weinbrecht: Unlikely Hero

by
Tom Kelly
2016-10-06 12:44
 

From its humble beginnings in 1967, the New York Ski Ball has become more than just a fundraiser, establishing itself as a pivotal cultural event in the Olympic sport. Over the years, hundreds of Olympic skiers and snowboarders have graced the stage of some of New York’s most notable venues from the Plaza, Pierre and Waldorf hotels, to the Hammerstein Ballroom, Cipriani and even the deck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid. This October, all 31 of the Olympic champions or their descendants are invited to New York City to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Foundation’s New York Gold Medal Gala. Prior to the event, we explore some of the greatest stories about skiing and snowboarding’s gold medalists throughout the years.

 

In many ways, Donna Weinbrecht was an unlikely hero. An Olympic ski champion from New Jersey? But on a snowy day high in the mountains above the Tarentaise Valley in the French Savoie, she became her sport's first gold medalist.

After a demonstration sport introduction in Calgary four years earlier, freestyle moguls found its way into the 1992 Games in the popular ski village of Tignes, not far from Val d’Isere, where the men’s downhill was held.


Weinbrecht competes for her gold in 1992. (Getty Images-Rick Stewart)

On the fifth day of the Games, in the midst of heavy, blowing snow, freestyle skiing made its debut as a full medal event. Moguls skiing brought a new era to the Olympics – music mixed with skiing, athletes flying down the bumps and launching themselves into the air, twisting and turning. It seems commonplace today, but in 1992 freestyle was in stark contrast to the traditional Olympic events.

It was a matchup between two of the powerhouse nations: the USA and the host nation of France. In the men's debut, France went gold-silver. But Steamboat Springs skier Nelson Carmichael made history with bronze.

Now it was time for the girls. Weinbrecht, a former art student and waitress at Killington Mountain, came into the Games with headlines blazing. Her blonde ponytail was a signature cover shot embodying the freeness of the new sport. She had started skiing moguls as a teen, as her parents had a ski home near Killington. Now, at 26, she was poised for history.


Weinbrecht stands on the podium after winning her gold medal. (Getty Images-Carl Yarbrough)

In qualifications a day earlier, she had been second to French favorite Raphaelle Monod. So Weinbrecht skied second to last in the finals. She pounded her way down the course through the swirling snow to the sounds of Robert Gordon's Rock Billy Boogie, launching her trademark daffy-twister-spread at the bottom to take the lead. Then, it was wait and watch as Monod came down to deafening cheers – succumbing to the pressure at the bottom of the course as Weinbrecht was crowned her sport's first Olympic champion.

Weinbrecht and Carmichael went on to join the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. Since that historic first official Olympic performance, the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team has continued to win a medal in moguls in each successive Winter Games – the only nation with a perfect medals record.

The Jersey girl still cherishes that medal she won 20 years ago in Tignes and is still passionately engaged in skiing. She’s a regular at freestyle events and an annual attendee at the New York Gold Medal gala – still proud to show off her sport’s first ever gold medal.