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Baxter: a Highlander Fling at Slalom Gold

Advice
posted: 01/01/2000

Park City, Utah Feb 23, 2002--Talk to Alain Baxter about his Salt Lake Winter Olympic slalom prospects in February and you get an old-pro response. "I take each race as it comes. Grinding away. Not getting impatient or ahead of myself." So what do you think about in the start gate? "Not very much. I just try to make sure that my mind is clear and that I am focused."

But there's more to it than that. Much more. This is the Scotsman from Aviemore in the sub-Arctic Grampian Mountains, a mature 28 on December 26, who to many British has shot from nowhere to become not so much an Olympic medal dark horse as a dapple gray. He is a man the Austrians, current holders of all five men's World Cup globes, have come to dub the Highlander, a mark of respect and even trepidation.

Starting the 2000-2001 World Cup season ranked a humble 63rd, Baxter, uniquely for a Briton, finished the nine-event series 21st, 13th, 8th, 7th, 13th, 9th, 18th, 19th, and, most outstandingly, 4th in the finals at Are, Sweden. Never once a faller, it left him eleventh-rated in the world and an inspiration to the British Land ski team. More practically, it means he qualifies for top-15 start draws on the best available snow, a surefire incentive for the new World Cup slalom series and a Winter Olympic podium place. And, yes, Scottish pragmatism aside, he says, "I do want a podium place."

The most Soccer-crazed British sports editor will have to come to terms with this tawny-haired, quietly spoken Scot from Britain's only ski village. He is a man now world class at carving high-speed turns through the blue-and red-flagged gates of steep, tricky courses, each about 500 meters, the aggregate of two runs providing winners by tenths and sometimes hundredths of a second.

Many of them helmeted and padded like boxers in the gym, slalomers will breast or beat aside flailing hinged poles with never a trip or a missed gate if they are to win by eye-blinking margins. Some, like the great Ingemar Stenmark or Alberto Tomba in their prime, will do so consistently. Others will fail by the same measure. No racer will ever set out to ski a certain time, though he has a shrewd idea of the needs. Sometimes, with nothing to lose after a poor first run, he will ski flat out, on the edge of disaster. But most top slalomers have learned their limits. Smoothness, especially on modern equipment, is usually the key. No one who falls wins, and that is a lesson Baxter, who prefers to race without a helmet, has learned to advantage.

Four years ago still a modest 23, he said, "The British are late developers, more than most. The big thing is to stick at it." He has had his bad moments, form blips, loss of sponsors, endless inter-continental travelling, lonely days and nights as a one-man team in the kind of rooms a desperate travel agent might offer a late caller.

Britain has never had a world-class slalomer since the season-long World Cup was introduced in 1967, like Formula I offering a points reward for each race. The Scottish ski industry, based on mountains not much above 4,000 feet, seemed ideal for slalom training. And Baxter's entire family--father, mother, stepfather, aunt, half-brother, and cousin--was ski racers or instructors. Against that, Scotland's sub-Arctic snow was uncertain, sometimes arriving in late Spring, and trainers for the most part were unschooled in top-level Alpine racing. Lastly, and not least, downhill boasted the glamour--and the crashes--beloved of the TV cameras. Not surprisingly, Konrad Bartelski and the Bell brothers opted for downhill, turning in top 15 places to earn serious Alpine respect. Otherwise, the modern world shrugged off Britain's pioneering of mountain games as a historical anomaly, even where it knew of it.

With this lonely background, Baxter from the age of 16 inched his way up in Continental Cup slalom, the level immediately below World Cup. Short of company and money, he sometimes wished he'd taken up professional ice hock, his other great love. But Sue, his mother, a ski instructor at Courchevel, told him to hang in. The1998 Nagano Olympics offered great hopes, but, agonizingly, he crashed out in slalom. "All the same, I was 15th at the split time, " Baxter recalled. "It made me think my mother could be right."

Training with the Finns helped. So did Austrian World Cup racers turned trainers, first Mathias Berthold, then Christian Schwaiger, boosting his technique, fitness and confidence. Finally came a turning point in the strictest sense. "Rossignol has always been good to me. The British Federation was forever cash-strapped and but for Rossignol, Scottish lottery money and one or two personal sponsors, I couldn't have carried on," says Baxter. "Two years ago the short, shaped skis came in--190 centimeters down to 170, this season 163--and it made a huge difference. But for me, the Rossignol model with the bigger sidecut, okay on soft snow, wasn't gripping on harder ice. I tried some Head skis and, Boom!, straight away I was quick.

"The turns now are like Giant Slalom, totally different from Tomba's day. You carve on the side cut. I switched to Head, and there I was at Park City, first of the World Cups last season, with a second best split time. That's it, I said to myself. It can happen."

Baxter's 21st place from a 53rd start, down among the ruts, brought Britain's first ever World Cup slalom points, and, as part of a nation's bonus packet, an extra racer. So, Johnny Moulder-Brown arrived as teammate, friend and slalomer, gaining 17th place at Sestriere. Johnny, at 6ft 4in the tallest slalomer on the circuit, is from the unlikely background of a London Chelsea home and a Sandown Park dry ski slope, which is much like saying you studied for the U.S. Open on a Tokyo driving range. Subsequently, he learned his racing skills and Austrian dialect at Schladming ski school.

None knows better than Schwaiger how formidable the challenge of his youthful fellow Austrians, among them World Cup titleholder Benjamin Raich, runner-up Heinz Shilchegger, world champion Mario Matt and training pal Kilian Albrecht, and a clutch of Norwegians, Slovenians and French. "Alain is learning all the time and now knows he is strong enough to cope with pressure and difficult conditions," says Schwaiger. "The training we had prior to the Are final was key. We trained with the Austrian team and Alain was often the fastest man on the hill in timed runs." This was a reference to Baxter's first run of 52.50 seconds, third fastest behind Raich, followed by a coolly proficient second run over a rutted, sun-warmed course. It was a much more composed response than his St Anton World Championship second run, which reduced him to 16th. At Are, only a last, desperate run by Matt, the world champion, cost Baxter a podium place.

The baggage Baxter takes to Deer Valley's Olympic slope should be cheery. His cousin Lesley McKenna is a genuine medal hope in snowboard. He now has a Denver-based business manager, and there's a Drambuie Scotch whisky headband to remind him of a helpful individual sponsorship. He has a personal website (www.alainbaxter.co.uk) which indicates that bidding for gold may not be so off-putting for a boy known at Kingussie High School as Biddy Baxter. He will explain for the thousandth time that the "i" in Alain is due to his father Iain's acquaintance with 1969-70 French racer, Alain Penz. He can interpret shinty, a rough form of hockey, to bemused U.S. reporters. Needless to say he excels at it, and for good measure knocks a golf ball around a course at two or three over par. He has a lucky set of much-washed thermals, and wears a charm in the form of a Maori carving.

Scottish skiing was always for the brave, and that's Baxter in a nutshell. Stick at it, and the luck can turn. Aviemore's rundown Sixties hotels and facilities are promised major renovations--and nothing will please Baxter more if it gets its ice rink back. The nearby Cairngorm ski area's wind-defeating funicular railway is almost complete. Deer Valley and its "No You Don't!" Olympic slope is a Continent away in geography and style, but who's to say his Highlander fling won't be, "Yes I Do!."

Alain Baxter
Hometown: Aviemore
Born: 26.12.1973
Height: 179cm;Weight: 83g
2001 World Cup: 34th Overall
222 pts; 10th Slalom 222 pts
(4th Are, 7th Wengen, 8th Madonna di Compiglio, 9th Schladming, 13thKitzbuehel, 13th Sestriere, 18th Shigakogen, 19th Shikakogen 2, 21st Park City). World Championships, St Anton, 16th slalom. Current FIS Slalom ranking, 11th.

John Samuel is a former sports editor for The Guardian newspaper, London and Manchester, who has covered World Cup and Winter Olympics since 1964.ski area's wind-defeating funicular railway is almost complete. Deer Valley and its "No You Don't!" Olympic slope is a Continent away in geography and style, but who's to say his Highlander fling won't be, "Yes I Do!."

Alain Baxter
Hometown: Aviemore
Born: 26.12.1973
Height: 179cm;Weight: 83g
2001 World Cup: 34th Overall
222 pts; 10th Slalom 222 pts
(4th Are, 7th Wengen, 8th Madonna di Compiglio, 9th Schladming, 13thKitzbuehel, 13th Sestriere, 18th Shigakogen, 19th Shikakogen 2, 21st Park City). World Championships, St Anton, 16th slalom. Current FIS Slalom ranking, 11th.

John Samuel is a former sports editor for The Guardian newspaper, London and Manchester, who has covered World Cup and Winter Olympics since 1964.

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