Pam Fletcher celebrates after winning the American Ski Classic World Cup downhill in 1986 at Vail.
When she crossed the finish line, her mind was racing. Starting number 30, she knew she had had a good run. She heard the crowd roaring. But she couldn’t see the scoreboard. Finally, someone shouted out the news. The U.S. Ski Team’s Pam Fletcher had won the American Ski Classic World Cup downhill at Vail. History was made - March 15, 1986.
Growing up outside Boston at her parents’ Nashoba Valley Ski Area, Fletcher had worked a lifetime for that moment. Her parents had taught her well. From watching her father manage the minute details of a weather-challenged business, she learned about precision in how she skied and the ability to roll with the situations that life presented her.
Fletcher was in her sixth season on the World Cup. She came into the race at Vail with a pair of top 10 downhill results, plus a super G podium from Furano, and had been top five in every downhill training run at Vail.
“For weeks, I had visualized myself skiing that World Cup downhill course in Vail from start to finish through every turn and over every roll,” said Fletcher. “I had rehearsed the course so many times in my head that I could almost feel the G-forces on my body through the run. I could even smell the flowers on the victory stand.”
While the U.S. Ski Team was deep (six U.S. women would finish in the top 15 that day), the bettor’s choices were Swiss Maria Walliser, Austrian Katrin Gutensohn and Canada’s Laurie Graham. Walliser came into Vail with a torrid two-downhill winning streak and would go on to take three crystal globes that season.
“The chance to race on home snow was so exciting for all of us and the energy that day in Vail was electrifying,” recalled Fletcher. “So many friends and family had made the trip to support our U.S. skiers. Everywhere we went in Vail that week, people were extending their support and well wishes for the upcoming competition.”
Starting deep in the pack, Fletcher knew the challenge that was presented. Ahead of her was Graham, in the race lead ahead of Walliser, who had now clinched the World Cup title in the final downhill of the season.
Fletcher started deep in the pack at number 30. She pushed out of the start atop Ledges. Arcing her way down Columbine and International at Vail, she set a torrid pace as her skis flew over every pitch and roll as G forces pitched her side to side.
“I had the run of my life,” wrote Fletcher later in a memoir about the race. “Everything seemed so simple, almost as if I were moving in slow motion, even though I was traveling more than sixty miles an hour. Compressing myself into a tight ball, I would fly a hundred feet down the slope, ten feet off the ground, waiting to land like a cat, subtle, and smooth.”
“Concentrate. Look for speed. Stay aerodynamic.”
As she dug deeply into her final tuck down Pepi’s Face, Fletcher knew the run was special. It had been a tough couple years, but she fought back like she always did, coming into Vail on a hot streak. Her career was turning, she could feel it. But the next few seconds would be a blur as she etched her name into the annals of U.S. Ski Team history.
In the finish, Fletcher naively asked former alpine director Harald Schoenhaar how she did. ‘You won, you did it!’ he shouted. Teammates rushed to greet her. The PA system blared “American Girl” by Tom Petty. Six Americans in top 14 led by Nashoba Valley’s Pam Fletcher. It was a big win - .32 over Graham and eight-tenths ahead of Walliser.
“I was elated! I had worked so hard,” she said. “Finally, I found myself standing on the top step of the platform above the best in the world. It was awesome! Not only was I on top of the world that day, but so many of my teammates had personal best finishes in the race, as well. Everyone had been working so hard all season and finally it was a great day for the USA!
“Everyone was celebrating. Vail Village was crazy that night!”
Amidst it all, the memory that Fletcher most cherishes from that day was the outreach before the race by so many fans. One group climbed an area cross valley called Potato Patch the night before to stomp GO PAM into the snow. She could see it from the start house.
“The Vail Valley always welcomes the world,” said Fletcher. “The support you feel from the locals is so passionate and genuine. You can hear the cheers from the fans and course crew from top to bottom - like they’re pulling you down the mountain. It is a magical place and every time I come to Vail now, it feels like I have come home.
“The entire Vail Valley is just beaming with pride, and when an American steps into the start, the cheering lights up the entire valley.”
Fletcher went on to race through the 1989 season before retiring, spending time as a ski racing television commentator and working at the family ski area. Today, she remains one of the Team’s biggest fans and a familiar face every year at Birds of Prey.
“As a fan of the sport and a former member of the team, I still feel the energy and excitement of the sport of ski racing every time I watch one of our U.S. athletes step into the starting gate. I get so nervous and excited for them. Our team has such solid strength and momentum. Our U.S. ski racers are some of the most talented athletes, both on and off the mountain.
“I admire our team today not only as amazing competitors, but as inspirational people. It is a fun club and I am so grateful that I have been a part of it.”