American downhill skier David Chappellet (Robert Redford) arrives in Wengen, Switzerland, to join the U.S. ski team, along with fellow newcomer D. K. Bryan (Kenneth Kirk). Both men were sent for by team coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman) to replace one of his top skiers Tommy Herb (Joe Jay Jalbert) who was recently injured during an FIS competition. Raised in the small town of Idaho Springs, Colorado, Chappellet is a loner with a single-minded focus on becoming a skiing champion, and shows little interest in being a team player. After refusing to race at the Lauberhorn because of a late starting position, he makes his European skiing debut at the Arlberg-Kandahar in Austria, where he finishes in an impressive fourth position. In the final race of the season at the Hahnenkamm-Rennen in Kitzbühel, Austria, he crashes.
That summer, Chappellet joins the team in Oregon for off-season training, and visits his father at his home in Idaho Springs, but they have little to say to each other. Chappellet drives into town and picks up an old girlfriend and they make love in the back seat of his father’s old Chevrolet. Afterwards, he shows little interest in the girl’s feelings. Later, when his father asks him why he is wasting his life on skiing, Chappellet reveals that he is racing as an amateur to become an Olympic champion. His father observes, “The world’s full of ’em.”
Back in France that winter, Chappellet wins the Grand Prix de Megève in France and soon attracts the attention of Machet (Karl Michael Vogler), a ski manufacturer who wants Chappellet to use his skis for the advertising value. Chappellet is more interested in Machet’s attractive assistant Carole Stahl (Camilla Sparv). After a chance encounter at a bakery, he and Carole spend some time with each other. They meet up again in Wengen, ski the slopes together, and eventually make love.
At Kitzbühel, Chappellet wins the Hahnenkamm, but afterwards his cockiness alienates his teammates and his coach who feel he is only out for himself. The team’s top racer, Johnny Creech (Jim McMullan), tells assistant coach Mayo (Dabney Coleman), “He’s never been for the team, and he never will be.” Mayo responds, “Well it’s not exactly a team sport, is it?” Chappellet finishes the season with several impressive victories ensuring his place on next season’s Olympic team.
During the off-season, Chappellet and Carole continue to see each other. At the start of the third season, he calls her from Megève asking to spend Christmas with him. After waiting several days alone, Chappellet realizes that she is not coming. He travels to Zurich to Machet’s office to find her, but learns she is spending Christmas with her family. The next week, Chappellet runs into Carole in Wengen and is annoyed that she never called and that she is with another man. After a brief confrontation, he realizes their relationship is over.
Two weeks before the Olympics, after a day of training at Wengen, Chappellet challenges Creech to a one-on-one race, and the two take off to the bottom as the coaches looks on in horror. On the way down, Chappellet forces Creech into the stone wall of a narrow-arched bridge (Jungfrau railway overpass Wasserstation), and Creech barely escapes injury. The next day, during the Lauberhorn race, Creech is seriously injured during his run, leaving Chappellet as the team’s best hope for an Olympic gold medal.
At the Winter Olympics, with Austrian champion Max Meier in first place, Chappellet uncorks one of his best runs, beating Meier’s time and ending up in first place with all the highly-ranked racers having already run. He is thronged by elated fans and teammates in the finish area. However, on the course, an unheralded German skier in a later seed is turning in very fast split times. The fans fall quiet, and Chappellet takes notice of the German, watching nervously. As the German approaches the final schuss, he crashes, and Chappellet becomes an Olympic gold medal champion. The German makes his way to the finish area, and Chappellet looks into his eyes briefly before being carried off in victory.