Gold medal skiers peaks apart as people, but not as athletes

``You're covering the World Cup,'' the young woman said, eyeing my press credential. ``Is Alberto Tomba there?'' ``Yes,'' I said, and not wanting to slight the world's other great skier, I added, ``And so is Pirmin Zurbriggen.''

She gave me the blankest of looks. ``Who's he?'' she asked.

Such is the profound difference between the flamboyant, Italian Olympic gold medalist, Tomba, and the introverted, nearly monastic Swiss gold medalist, Zurbriggen. Tomba is becoming a world sports celebrity of the first order, while Zurbriggen seems appreciated only by fans of ski racing.

But how Zurbriggen is appreciated by those who know skiing. ``He's like a hero for us,'' said fellow Swiss skier Bruno Kernen, a hero himself when he won Kitzb"uhel in 1983. ``We look at his technique, we look at everything he does.''

Italian ski team coach Josef Messner said, ``Zurbriggen expresses his personality in races. Because he expresses himself in his racing, he's quite quiet after the race.''

Tomba expresses himself everywhere he goes. He jokes with tense competitors in the cathedral-quiet starting area, says hello to his startled trainer during a giant slalom run, then pounds his chest and shouts ``I am a beast!'' as he crosses the finish line.

Comparing - or rather, contrasting - the two best skiers in the world, one needs to start at the beginning. Zurbriggen, like most champion skiers, is a mountain man, simple and pure. Born in Almagell, a hamlet tucked into a spectacular and spectacularly remote Swiss valley, he makes his home there among relatives and friends.

It seems everyone on earth is Tomba's friend. He grew up and continues to live in Bologna, a large and vibrant Italian city. In the finish area, he has time for everyone. And everyone wants a picture taken with Tomba. Girls want to kiss him, and he kisses them first.

Zurbriggen simply stands in the finish area, looking up at the mountain he's just descended. He might not joke, might not even talk, but he glows with joy after a good run, and he glows, also, at the sight of his Swiss girlfriend, Monica Julen.

But on mountainside, Zurbriggen is the most exciting skier of our time. The steeper and icier the mountainside, the better Zurbriggen skis. ``He's the king of the downhillers,'' Kernen says.

``He takes more chances than anybody. He's the most aggressive downiller there is,'' says veteran Australian racer Stephen Lee.

The Olympic downhill on Mt. Allan was so steep at the top that course workers had to wear mountain climber's crampons. They could stand straight up, reach out and touch the mountainside with one hand. And the ice was as hard as a hockey rink.

Zurbriggen was delighted. He bettered an excellent run by Swiss teammate Peter Mueller and won the most prestigious of the Alpine gold medals. He was uncharacteristically expressive afterward. He threw his skis in the air - then carefully caught them - and made a praying gesture of thanks.

``He believes in God very much, and I think that makes him very strong,'' Kernen said.

Here at Vail/Beaver Creek, the course was too flat and slow after a snowstorm for Zurbriggen to exercise his talents and he finished out of the running in the two downhill races. (Mueller and another Swiss, Franz Heinzer, were the victors.)

But Zurbriggen seems certain to capture the coveted World Cup downhill title. In Europe, the winner of the downhill title is accorded almost as much respect as the winner of the World Cup overall title. And the winner of Kitzb"uhel, the steepest and iciest of all downhills, is accorded a very special respect. Zurbriggen has won Kitzb"uhel three times, once despite injuring a knee at 80 m.p.h. well before the finish.

Tomba does not race downhill. ``My parents don't want me racing downhill,'' Tomba said through an interpreter. ``Even two days ago when I was supposed to ski downhill just in training, they were so upset that they were close to getting on a plane to come out and prevent me.''

The slaloms are his forte, and he finished fifth here in the super-giant. He's won three of five World Cup giant slaloms this year, and four of five World Cup slaloms, a record unequaled by anyone since the great Swedish skier Ingemar Stenmark was in his prime in the late '70s.

While skiing aficionados prefer to measure excellence by such consistency over the course of a World Cup season, everyone agrees the Olympics are won by special athletes able to perform to their peak that one day every four years. Tomba is such a special athlete. He won the giant slalom and slalom, and since the Winter Olympics will be held again in 1994 as well as 1992 (when they'll begin alternating every two years with the summer Olympics), Tomba has the chance to win more Olympic alpine skiing medals than anyone ever has.

Still, lest anyone project a Stenmarkian greatness upon Tomba prematurely, let's count World Cup wins: Stenmark has a staggering 85 wins, Zurbriggen follows with 33, especially impressive because of the difficult downhills he's won. And Tomba has seven wins.

Nevertheless, the future for 21-year-old Tomba could not be brighter. It appears as if he and Zurbriggen, 24, will be battling for the World Cup overall title in the years ahead. Zurbriggen was edged by Austrian Marc Girardelli (who skis for Luxembourg) for the World Cup overall title in 1985 and 1986, but won it impressively in 1984 and again last year.

Either Zurbriggen or Tomba will win it this year, in what might be the closest overall race ever as the tour returns to Europe for the final two events. If he wins again, Zurbriggen will return quietly to his beautiful Swiss hamlet. If Tomba wins, he will undoubtedly set a formidable world record - for celebrating.

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