There was a time when Tamara McKinney thought seriously about stepping out of the starting gate and the pressures that go with skiing for the U.S. of A.

In 1986, and again last year, things weren't going well for her, either on the ski slopes or anywhere else. She'd broken her leg in spring training in 1987 and got in very little training and almost no racing before the all-important '88 Olympics in Calgary.Needless to say, she didn't do well. A short time later her mother died, and in August her brother was killed. If there was a time to give it up, this was certainly it.

Last month in Aspen, Colo., Tamara McKinney won a gold medal at the World Championships in the combined downhill and slalom, and a bronze in the special slalom.

She was America's brightest moment; she is now America's brightest hope, this at age 26 and a career in ski racing that over the past 11 years with the U.S. Team has been on a roller-coaster rail. And now?

"After this season," she said about her future, "I want to sit down with the coaches and talk about it. Right now I feel strong and good. I'll just have to wait and see."

McKinney and U.S. teammates Eva Twardokens, Diann Roffe and Heidi Voelker made a short stopover in Utah to ski at Park City and rest before heading to Japan to begin racing March 3.

This, according to U.S. coaches, is a team that should do well in Japan, the final stop on the World Cup series.

McKinney has her old confidence back. "When she gets in the gate now," said U.S. coach Martin Rufener, "she tells me she's going to win, and she believes it."

Twardokens, 23, is almost completely mended after a serious knee injury; Roffe is back to 100 percent after a slight knee injury in November; and Voelker, 19, the youngest of the group, is expected to continue her successful introduction to big-time racing.

The big story, of course, is McKinney and her return to the top. She is now No. 3 in the world in slalom racing.

Rufener attributed McKinney's recovery to a couple of things.

"After her injury, she trained and worked so hard to try and get ready for the Olympics. When she came back this year she had worked harder and was in better shape they she'd ever been.

"And part of it came within. She wanted it. If she hadn't, I don't think it would have happened."

"Last year was a year for me to work out my difficulties," McKinney explained. "My family was on my mind so much I was torn between training and being home. At Calgary, I think I was physically ready, but I did't have my confidence."

Over this past summer, she said, coaches and family members encouraged her to continue her racing career.

"I had a good race right off, and it was at that point that I felt I could be up with the best again . . . And with each race I feel more confident. I know what risks I can take and finish up there in the top three."

She said she especially wanted to do well in the World Championships in Vail. And she especially wanted to do well in the combined - downhill and slalom.

"They're such different races. To ski both well is very difficult to do. I felt if I could do well, it would really help my confidence. I know now, anytime I enter the starting gate I can win."

She is bothered some, however, by the attention thrown on her for winning and the lack of attention put on other skiers not doing so well.

"People over here (in the U.S.) just don't know what it's like. We ski three, maybe four races here at home. Then we go over there (Europe) and we're on their turf. Ski areas there aren't like they are here . . . you're skiing on rock, dirt, through cow pastures. They're not always the beautiful resorts like we have.

"We're still a young team and we're gaining experience. It's unfair to compare young talent to a successful, experienced team. I just wish people here were more educated. Looking at the talent, there are some people that are right on the edge."