In 1994, U.S. skier Tommy Moe won a gold medal in the men’s downhill race at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in Norway. Racing over a course nearly two miles long and hitting speeds in excess of 70 mph, Moe’s margin of victory was a microscopic 0.04 seconds. That’s less time than it takes the average human eye to blink.
In separating gold from silver, it remains the closest downhill in Olympic history. And for Moe, it was the perfect culmination of a lifetime of dreaming and training.
“When I came to the finish line, I didn’t really look up at the [leader] board immediately because I was just thinking, ‘Damn, that was a good run,’” Moe recalled in a recent interview. As the current U.S. team continues to fight for medals in PyeongChang, the man Sports Illustrated famously described as “Golden Boy” in a 1994 magazine cover said he’s keeping tabs on all of the races and events.
Like many of the 2018 members of Team USA, Moe’s success in 1994 was born out of earlier struggles.
“The first time I went to the Olympics it was in 1992 at Albertville, France,” Moe explained. “I had maybe a top-15 in World Cup racing, and had this grandiose dream of winning an Olympic medal like everybody. I just wasn’t really there physically. I hadn’t matured physically or mentally.”
Despite having achieved great results on the junior racing circuit, Moe had yet to develop by 1992.
“I remember that I wanted to do well, and I ended up getting like 28th in the downhill and 20th in the Super-G,” said Moe. “My family was there and my dad was there and I was just super disappointed. A feeling of failure. I said to myself after that, ‘I have to figure this out.’ And that if I got another chance, I would be ready and do way better.”
Luckily for Moe, he was coming into his prime as a skier in an unusual Olympic period. After the 1992 Olympics, the Winter and Summer Games were split into the now-familiar pattern of alternating every two years. This meant that instead of waiting four years for another chance, Moe would get his next chance in just two years, in 1994.
In the interim 1993 season, Moe began to grow from the teenager who had debuted on the U.S. team in the late ’80s into a world class professional.
“I started to fill out as a skier,” said Moe. “I got a lot stronger when I was 23 and the year after that. I focused a little more on giant slalom and the more technical aspects of skiing. The next season I think I got second in a World Cup race at Whistler in ‘93. And then I got fifth in the World Championships. Once you get on the podium at a World Cup, your confidence just goes through the roof.”
Heading into another Olympic year, Moe’s confidence continued its upward trend.
“Right before Lillehammer I’d had some good results and knew that if I was rested and felt strong that I could win a medal.”
Arriving in Norway for the Games, Moe recalled how the U.S. team’s unusual accommodations spurred optimism about the coming races:
The U.S. team and the Norwegian team stayed in housing that was right up on the course. All the other teams were in Lillehammer in the Olympic village. So for them it was like an hour drive in the morning to the slope. And we were up on the mountain, which our team organized. It was great, we were pretty much four turns down from the start in this nice chalet. I remember my teammate, Kyle Rasmussen, and I were thinking, “This is great, we’re going to do well here.”
On the morning of the men’s downhill, Moe’s mentality was an aggressive one.
“Warming up I just felt like today was going to be my day. I’m either going to win a medal or I’m going to crash.”
His recollection of the run itself remains vivid, testament to ski racers’ attention to detail:
When I was in the starting gate I was really keyed up and ready. I blasted out of the start and in the first section there were some roundhouse turns, pretty icy, kind of big fallaways. The third turn of the course, I felt really good on it and was able to carve the best I could. Through that top section, I was 0.2 seconds behind Kjetil André Aamodt, who was the favorite.
When I hit the mid section, that’s where I won the race. I went off a big jump and had great aerodynamics and landed nicely. There was another jump, and I don’t know if I could ever do it again but when I came into this jump, it was kind of like a left turn that had a big roll in it. When I came into it, I pre-jumped it and landed inside everybody else’s track. It was like a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing. That’s where I made up time, so when I got to the lower section, I was now 0.2 ahead. I made up like 0.4 with that move.
At the bottom, there was this big sidehill kind of turn, that led into the last jump. And somehow I just carved through that and grabbed my tuck again which was super aggressive and when I went off the jump I thought I was going to fly down out of the course and miss the gate. When I went off the jump I flew like 150 feet and landed just inside the gate.
During what proved to be his golden run, Moe experienced a peaceful moment even as he hurdled down the mountain.
“There was one section in the course where I came around a corner and the sun was out, and I could see the sparkle of the ice crystals in the air and the sun shining and I felt like I was in slow motion,” said Moe. “It was crazy, crazy moment. I was going 70 miles per hour, but it felt like I was in slow motion. It was like a situation that a lot of athletes talk about where you’re in a zone. So when I went through the finish line, I didn’t immediately look up at the board. I kind of did a long, drawn out turn.”
Eventually, of course, he did look at the results.
“When I finally came out of the turn and stopped, I looked up and saw number one, it was just elation. I was just like, ‘Oh yes!’ I’d never really come through the finish line and seen one on the board.”
After enduring a few tense moments as other skiers finished their runs, it was finally official that Moe had won the downhill. He became only the second U.S. skier to win an Olympic downhill after Bill Johnson in 1984.
“I think that night I did the awards ceremony and talked to President Clinton, who called me,” said Moe. “I did an interview with Bryant Gumbel, and then eventually went to bed. The next morning I woke up and I thought it was all a dream. It was crazy. I just thought, ‘Where’s that medal at?’ I got up and went over to the window sill and it was sitting there and I realized then that it wasn’t a dream.”
Still not done at the Olympics, Moe continued his run of good results. Days later, he skied into a silver medal in the Super-G.
“I just remember yawning at the top of the course because I was like, ‘I’ve already won the gold here, I don’t really have any pressure,’” Moe said. “And I almost won that race too. I missed the gold by 0.08. So I got two medals and I was the first American male skier to get two medals in one Olympics. It was almost surreal, the whole experience.”
Moe retired from racing in 1998 after skiing in his third Olympics at Nagano, Japan. He now lives with his family at Jackson Hole in Wyoming, having also been a co-founder of the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge in Alaska (where Moe grew up). Working as both a coach and a ski guide at Jackson, it’s a post-racing life he enjoys.
“Another day at the office,” Moe said as he exited the shuttle bus coming home from the mountain after skiing all day. “I love it here.”