Swiss teen-ager Michela Figini is world's top female ski racer

Last year at Sarajevo, 17-year-old Michela Figini shot out of the starting gate and stormed through the women's downhill course in a run that had ``gold medal'' written all over it. A few minutes later, though, after another racer fell at a spot that hadn't been properly marked, the race was held up temporarily, then cancelled altogether when the weather worsened. It was a tough blow for the Swiss teen-ager -- but like a true competitor she shrugged it off, came back the next day, and dominated her opposition once again to become the youngest Alpine skiing champion in Olympic history.

That's the sort of stuff legends are made of -- but of course the Olympic downhill is just one race. Was Figini destined to be one of the great ones, or did she just happen to get hot at the right time and place?

Well, now it's a year later, and the answer is pretty obvious, for at the tender age of 18, Michela has already ``done it all'' as far as her sport's top honors go. First of all, just in case anyone might have thought her Olympic victory was a fluke, she picked up the downhill gold medal at this year's world championships in Bormio, Italy. Meanwhile she has dominated the point standings week in and week out, finally making it official by clinching the overall World Cup title as the best female skier on the circuit for 1984-85.

Those are the three biggest prizes available to a skier. So which one meant the most to her?

``They're all very important,'' Michela said. ``Each one for different reasons. But I guess I'd have to say the Olympics are the most important -- because they only come once every four years?''

Given that importance, and the pressure it creates, most ordinary folk undoubtedly would be pretty upset at having a sure gold medal taken away from them and being asked to go out and win it again the next day. But Figini, recalling the incident at Sarajevo, says it really didn't bother her at all.

``I wasn't upset when they stopped the race, because it was the right decision,'' she explained.

But didn't she have even the slightest misgivings that it might not be her day the next time? Especially in a race like the downhill, where the tiniest little slip can mean the difference between a gold medal and a crash landing along the side of the course?

``No,'' she said. ``I'd had two training runs before that first race, and they had been just so-so. But then in the race, I found my line, and I was skiing really well. Once I had that line, I was confident that I could go out and do it again the next day. I wasn't worried.''

And as it turned out, of course, she didn't have to be.

Michela, a charming, high-spirited youngster with a winning smile, comes from the extreme southern part of Switzerland and is the only member of the current team who grew up speaking Italian. She also speaks other languages, including English, and seems at ease handling the crush of media and public attention that has accompanied her meteoric rise to fame.

Despite her happy-go-lucky nature, Figini can be deceptively strong-willed when it comes to things like her training program. She listens to her coaches, but basically she wants to do things her own way -- and who is going to argue with her at this point?

On the slopes, Michela is not a textbook-pure skier by any means, but she seems to have a gift for doing well in tough situations -- and her ``mistakes'' seem to make her go faster. The glamorous downhill is her big event, and she is also one of the best in giant slalom -- piling up enough points in these two disciplines to offset the fact that she seldom does well in the more technical slalom races.

It was in North America at the tail end of the 1982-83 World Cup season that the then 16-year-old Figini first began making a name for herself -- taking a third place at Mt. Tremblant and a fourth here at Waterville Valley to wind up 26th overall in the final standings.

Michela came on even more strongly at the beginning of the following winter -- and while the names of other competitors may have been more familiar to the general public, the skiing cognescenti were fully aware that she was going to be one of the top contenders in the downhill at Sarajevo. And ever since those two spectacular runs down the side of Mount Jahorina, of course, her name has consistently been at or near the top of the list.

In terms of domination, in fact, Michela's achievements during one particular 21/2-week stretch this winter rank up there with anything any skier has done in recent years. From Jan. 5-21 she won every downhill and giant slalom on the schedule: six races plus a combined in 17 days. In a sport where even the best skiers pile up their World Cup points via a succession of high finishes with an occasional first place thrown in, such a winning streak is little short of amazing.

Figini must have sometimes felt that she needed such a streak, however, just to stay ahead of her teammates. Indeed, with Michela first, Brigitte Oertli second, Maria Walliser third, and two-time champion Erika Hess seventh, the Swiss have long since clinched the women's team championship.

But all this is history now -- and Figini's eyes are already on the future as she seeks new worlds to conquer.

Considering the type of sport ski racing is, plus the number of outstanding newcomers who come along each winter, it is perhaps not surprising that no skier -- male or female -- has ever won two Olympic gold medals in that most exciting and hazardous of all events, the downhill. Now, of course, it is Michela who has the opportunity. Is she looking ahead toward Calgary in 1988, and the chance for a history-making double?

``I expect to be there,'' she says.

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