The Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the mid-1930s doesn't begin to compare to the drought the U.S. women's cross country ski team has experienced in Olympic competition. No American has won a medal since women's cross country was introduced as an Olympic sport at the Cortina (Italy) games of 1956.
But the United States' sad history in cross country skiing might have been rewritten had Woodfords resident Debbi Waldear discovered her talent for Nordic skiing before 1980 - when she took up the sport at age 30.
Waldear, now 49, is currently the best female cross country skier in the world in her age division. Since 1992, she's won seven gold and two silver medals at the master's world championships in the 40-49 age divisions, and her four-gold-medal haul at the '98 world championships was the best performance by any American, regardless of age or gender.
What's got to be frightening for her competition is that, with her 50th birthday approaching, Waldear, promises to become even more dominating - at all of 4-foot-11 and 100 pounds -at the 2000 world championships in Kiruna, Sweden, in March when she moves from the 40-49 age division to the 50-59 age bracket.
Waldear sounds as if she regrets missing a potential Olympic experience more than any possible medal.
"I do think I had a chance to be on a team, as I have some talent, and if I had pursued it, I could possibly have made a team," understated Waldear, who works as the manager of the Kirkwood Cross Country Ski Area. "But I didn't even realize cross country was a competitive Olympic event."
As for a medal, Waldear said she would've had to have been essentially born on skis to have a chance.
"Maybe if I had started when I was 5, like the Russians, Finns and Swedes," Waldear said.
Instead, Waldear was already "middle-aged," athletically speaking, when she discovered Nordic skiing. After having grown up in the Bay Area, she moved to the Tahoe Area in the early '70s and started working for the Forest Service. Needing a winter job when the Forest Service jobs ended after summer, she gravitated toward skiing, where she became a downhill instructor.
Waldear first tried cross country in 1980 and became so engrossed with the sport that she moved to Kirkwood in order to train under the tutelage of biathlete Glenn Jobe. In addition to being a member of the U.S. Olympic Biathlon team, Jobe was also the original manager of the Kirkwood Cross Country Ski Area when it was opened in the early '70s.
Waldear was at her competitive peak among open skiers in 1987, when at 37 she won the Great American Ski Chase - a series of ski marathons throughout the United States. She went to the 1988 trials for the Calgary Olympics and finished 7th in one race, but she wasn't selected for the U.S. squad.
"By that time, I was already pretty old for this sport," Waldear said.
After a few years of retirement from competitive skiing following her successful '87 season, Waldear came back to the skiing scene with two gold medals at the '92 championships in Alaska.
Waldear said her job at Kirkwood is probably what separates her from the other American competitors.
"Working here, I get to ski more than most Americans - I like to go out and make sure the trails are in good shape," Waldear said. "Another thing is that I work hard at home. I raise llamas and am always building fences, throwing bales, things like that."
In addition to competing, Waldear has recently been helping coach the Far West Nordic youth team. The Far West team, which had gone years without a medal at the national championships, shocked everyone by bringing home 12 medals last winter from the national finals in Alaska.
"The neat thing for me is coaching kids now," Waldear said. "It's been more rewarding than any race."
Notes: Kirkwood is one of the few areas around Tahoe open for cross country skiing. There are currently 15 kilometers of trails open for skiing and snowshoeing. Call 258-6000 for info Depending on snow conditions, the Tahoe 10 cross country race is set to open the 1999-2000 race calendar this Sunday at Tahoe Cross Country Center in Tahoe City. Call (530) 583-5475 for information.