Skip to main content
Original Issue

Faith, Hope And Celerity

A devout Swiss and a cardinal-kissing miss from the U.S. worked miracles at the Alpine world championships in Italy

The natives called it the Campionati del Mondo di Sci Alpino, and it went on for 12 days near the medieval villages of Bormio and Santa Caterina, deep in the Valtellina, a dead-end valley in the Italian Alps. Each day the various campioni di sci were transported by horse-drawn sleigh up the Via Roma, the ancient main street of Bormio, to the 12th-century church of Santi Gervasio e Protasio, where their medals were presented. All of this lent an air of timeless goodwill to the 1985 Alpine Skiing World Championships, and it was both fitting and proper that the hero of heroes, triple medalist Pirmin Zurbriggen, 22, of Switzerland, is known to carry a picture of the Virgin Mary in his address book and is almost as famous for the devout-ness of his Roman Catholic faith as he is for the splendor of his ski racing. It was also fitting—though a bit less proper—that the youngest and happiest champion of them all, Diann Roffe, 17, of the U.S.A., was so wired after her victory in the women's giant slalom that during ceremonies at the church she placed a big smackeroo on the cheek of the nearest dignitary. That happened to be Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Archbishop of Lombardy and a right-hand man to Pope John Paul II.

The feats of Zurbriggen were amazing but predictable—as were the five medals a supercharged Swiss team added to his. The victory of Roffe was only amazing—as were the three medals a previously so-so American team added to hers.

Lively and little at 5'3", 110 pounds, Roffe combines the face of a pixie with the grit of a pioneer feminist. She's the daughter of a businessman from Williamson, N.Y., a village near Rochester. She began skiing at three, and the early start helped because her victory in the giant slalom last week occurred at the tender age of 17 years, 319 days. The number 319 is important because were it five lower Roffe would have been the youngest person ever to win a skiing world or Olympic championship. As it was, she was second-youngest, to Michela Figini of Switzerland, who was 17 and 315 when she got the gold in the Olympic downhill last year at Sarajevo.

Roffe was the darkest dark horse to win a major title in a long time. She'd made the U.S. four-woman giant slalom team because of a hairbreadth mathematical edge she had over 14-year veteran Cindy Nelson, who, at 29, is the oldest woman on the World Cup circuit. Skiing on a knee with Gortex ligaments, Nelson has been a mere shadow of what she once was; her best World Cup finish this season was a ninth. Roffe's best also had been a ninth. Using the numbjngly complex FIS scoring system as a tiebreaker, U.S. coaches had to take Roffe for the GS in Santa Caterina.

The most highly regarded American woman in the giant slalom was Tamara McKinney, 22, who was the women's overall World Cup champion in 1983 and, early in these world championships, had won a surprising bronze medal in the hybrid downhill-slalom combined event. Starting second in the GS, McKinney came over a knoll too fast near the bottom of the course, missed a turn and fell. Always the competitor, she skied to the finish area, grabbed a walkie-talkie and radioed a warning about that bump to her three teammates—Sarajevo gold medalist Debbie Armstrong, starting ninth, Eva Twardokens, 18th, and Roffe, 19th. Later, U.S. coach Brad Ghent said, "Sad as it was, Tamara's fall helped us a lot."

Forewarned by McKinney, the Americans blasted through the first run and wound up with Twardokens first, Armstrong fourth and Roffe fifth. On the crucial second run, as Roffe recalled, "I was real relaxed in the start and anywhere in the top six would have been a good finish. But I was really hyped, I had nothing to lose since I was such an underdog. So I just let 'er rip." She ripped everyone else right off the course, finishing .6 of a second better than runner-up Elisabeth Kirchler of Austria. Third was Twardokens, 19, while Armstrong, 21, who has not won a race since Sarajevo, was fourth.

Roffe is as bright and full of common sense as any 17-year-319-day-old woman around. "I know there will be pressure," she says, "but there's a difference between on-hill pressure and off-hill. I'll probably be hounded off the hill, but I don't think it will change my skiing." She is an A student as a senior at Burke Mountain (Vt.) Academy and reads voraciously. "I just finished Uncle Tom's Cabin," she said last week, "and it hit me real hard. It was very depressing."

Her ultimate reaction to her championship was also charged with emotion. "It didn't really hit until the day after the race," she said. "I came back to my room. It was full of flowers. I couldn't stop myself. I lay on the bed and I cried and cried. I was the world champion."

The bronze won by Twardokens was a bit less surprising than Roffe's gold: Twardokens had had no fewer than six Top 10 World Cup finishes this season, including a second in a super giant slalom at Arosa the week before the world championships. She is the daughter of an Olympic fencer from Poland who defected during the world championships in Philadelphia in 1958 and is now a doctor of kinesiology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Twardokens was national junior freestyle champion of her age group when she was 12. More versatile than Roffe or Armstrong, she finished a creditable 10th in the Bormio slalom, which neither of the others entered.

American medal No. 4 came in the men's downhill, a kind of happening that no longer seems incredible. However, it was not won by William Dean Johnson, the talkative gold medalist of Sarajevo. Johnson caught a 24-hour stomach bug three days before the downhill, lost five pounds and finished 14th. So who should come out of the pack to get the bronze medal but Doug Lewis, 21, of Salisbury, Vt. No fan of Johnson, Lewis said, "Last year I had been bothered by his success, and I was constantly racing against him, trying to beat him specifically. This season I decided that attitude got in the way of good skiing, so I started racing against myself." Lewis, who started 19th, was tense while he waited for his turn and then suddenly relaxed in the gate. "Someone yelled, 'Have fun, Lewie!' So I just punched it and enjoyed myself all the way down," he said.

His time was an infinitesimal .03 slower than Switzerland's Peter Mueller, who took the silver, and .14 slower than that of the winner, Zurbriggen, a young man who was seemingly transported by angels early last week. Zurbriggen won the gold in the downhill and the gold in the combined but then had to settle for silver in the giant slalom, having been beaten by a German no one knew much about, Markus Wasmaier, 21, a furniture refinisher from Upper Bavaria. The feelings about the victory were mixed at Wasmaier's home: His father, also a furniture refinisher, said, "What did he do? We had it so nice and quiet. Now we have to get used to a lot of racket!"

After the GS, Zurbriggen's angels deserted him. In the slalom he skied a rough first run, missed a gate and rejoined mere mortals as a dropout. The gold went to another unknown, Jonas Nilsson, 21, of Sweden, who had finished second in two World Cup races this season. Second was Marc Girardelli, who had gotten the bronze in the GS—but only after some unseemly disagreement over his citizenship. Girardelli was born and lives in Austria, but he skis for Luxembourg. The controversy cooled when Girardelli agreed to formally apply to become a citizen of Luxembourg. Third was Robert Zoller of Austria, closely followed by Ingemar Stenmark, 28, a gallant showing for the 12-year veteran who had won 79 World Cup races before this season, in which he had won none.

Zurbriggen's multimedal performance brought quick comparison with the 20th century's two most famous triple-gold skiers, Austria's Toni Sailer and France's Jean-Claude Killy. Zurbriggen is clearly the best all-event skier since those two and, like them, a man of surpassing athletic stature and movie-star good looks. However, there the resemblance stops—or at least slows down a lot. Whereas Sailer and Killy were both fun-loving fellows whose address books probably did not contain many virgins by any name, Zurbriggen is more altar boy than playboy. He is from a remote region of Switzerland, the Valais, and a tiny village called Saas-Almagell. Europe's best ski journalist, Patrick Lang, son of Serge, the World Cup godfather, said, "Pirmin is from a lost valley at the end of the world. His people are very rural, and they are very, very religious. I think that, for Pirmin, religion is like the Force was for Luke Skywalker. But Pirmin is also a split personality. One time he is like a boy Heidi, sunny and simple. Then when he skis a downhill race, he becomes a mad dog and there is a weird light in his face."

Few skiers have accomplished as much as Zurbriggen. Winner of the overall World Cup last season, this time around he had won a slalom, a giant slalom and two downhills—both on Kitzb√ºhel's treacherous Hahnenkamm. Still, his bouquet of medals at Bormio seemed a bit miraculous. In his second victorious World Cup downhill at Kitzb√ºhel he had badly damaged the cartilage in his left knee. That was on Jan. 12, just 18 days before the opening ceremonies for the world championships. He had arthroscopic surgery to remove some cartilage, and then began exercising the knee that same day. When he rested he endlessly watched replays of his races on videotapes. "I raced while I was in bed," he said later, "and that's why I didn't lose the feel for it." Just 12 days after surgery, he skied slaloms near his home and knew immediately that he would be able to race at Bormio. A miracle? Of course. He has twice visited Lourdes in the past two years—"Never to ask for things, but to give thanks for the good health I must have to be a successful athlete."

And if Zurbriggen was triply blessed last week, his Swiss teammates seemed to bask in a heavenly light, too. The women's downhill was won by the miracle child, Figini, who leaped to world fame by winning that Sarajevo gold in the downhill. She, like Zurbriggen, is a citizen of a speck of a village, in another of Switzerland's lost valleys. Hers is Prato Leventina, isolated in an Italian-speaking region of the country where the only way to pass time in winter is to ski. Figini started as a toddler, began racing at 10 and was beating every Swiss male her age when she was 13. This year she had won six consecutive World Cup races. A fourth Swiss gold was won by Erika Hess, 22, in the women's combined. She was also leading in the slalom when she fell on the second run and made a gift of the gold to Perrine Pelen, 24, of France. It was a nicely placed present: Pelen has been a bridesmaid in world title events, getting bronze medals in the giant slalom at Lake Placid and Sarajevo, as well as the silver in the slalom at Sarajevo.

Another sentimental favorite also won a medal in the women's slalom. Paola Magoni, 20, took the bronze to go with the Olympic gold she won last year. Magoni was the only Italian to win anything in these nicely managed Campionati del Mondo. While she rode in the medal-winners' sleigh toward the church on the Via Roma in Bormio, crowds of her countrymen applauded, and her smile could only have been called beatific.



Zurbriggen zapped the slopes for two golds plus a silver in the GS (above).



Roffe (19) and Twardokens (18) didn't start horsing around until after getting the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the GS.



[See caption above.]



Bormio and the Italian Alps were a stunning background for the men's downhill finish.



Someone shouted, "Have fun, Lewie!" So Lewis did, and flew to the downhill bronze.



Mueller's silver in the downhill was but one of eight medals won by the super Swiss.



Lewis (right) edged in on Mueller and Zurbriggen to break Swiss downhill dominance.