She was the MVP in girls' soccer at Seattle's Garfield High, but she has always envied a classmate who was so good in basketball that the school retired her number. Last month, after a third-place finish in a World Cup super-giant slalom in Puy St. Vincent, France—Debbie Armstrong's best Cup performance ever—she said longingly, "Well, they probably wouldn't retire my number for this, but maybe they could at least put it in the window for a while."
Now the school may not only retire her number, but it also might change its name from Garfield to Armstrong after her two inspired charges down the giant slalom course at Sarajevo earned her the first U.S. gold medal of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Armstrong, a high-spirited 20-year-old who psychs herself up in the starting gate by chanting, "Have fun! Have fun! Have fun!" and who specializes in the downhill, was considered the darkest of dark horses to win any kind of medal in any kind of race in Yugoslavia. After all, until those dazzling runs on Jahorina Monday, she'd never won a major event. There were a number of factors that worked to change that.
In the first run, Armstrong started 15th. It was only the second time she'd ever been in the top seed of 15, an honor she'd earned with that third at Puy St. Vincent. The last position sometimes bothers highly seeded racers who have a more fluttery touch on the snow than the hard-charging Armstrong, because ruts and bumps form as more skiers run the course. However, Armstrong, after two seasons of being back in the pack, was accustomed to washboard runs. Also, the 15th position meant that she could get up-to-the-second advice on the condition of the course from the three U.S. skiers going ahead of her—Christin Cooper (No. 9), Tamara McKinney (No. 7) and Cindy Nelson (No. 3). And unlike McKinney, the 1983 World Cup overall champion, and Cooper, the winner of three 1982 world championship medals, Armstrong was burdened with no public expectations.
Despite her unimposing World Cup record, Armstrong has a lot of confidence. As she said after winning the gold medal, "I was thinking before the race that I'm really as good as anybody. I thought to myself, 'Well, I know that, so why don't I go and do it and show everybody else, too?' " In doing exactly that, Armstrong skied a nearly flawless first run, marred only by a slight glitch at a gate near the bottom. Her time was 1:08.97, which put her in second place, .10 of a second behind Cooper, who looked almost unbeatable.
February 20, 1984
Still, Armstrong was suddenly a real threat for the gold, particularly because some big names had had bad runs. McKinney had made a mistake at the 10th gate and was 1.24 seconds—an age in ski racing—behind Cooper and in eighth place. The Swiss star, Erika Hess, was even further out of it, in 11th.
Another factor in Armstrong's favor was that the second run would begin only 3½ hours after the first. Originally the two runs were to be held on separate days, Monday and Tuesday. Had all the snow in the universe not been falling on Sarajevo for four straight days, thus fouling up the Alpine racing schedule almost beyond repair, Armstrong would have had 24 hours to torture herself with the pressure of her unfamiliar, lofty status.
Then came the crucial second run. Under the rules, Armstrong was in starting position No. 4, Cooper was No. 5. Armstrong was absolutely wired and according to Cooper, turned to her and said, "I'm just going to have fun out there, just have fun, have fun! And when you go down, I want you to relax and just have fun, because I'm going to have fun." When Armstrong finally leaped out of the gate into all that fun, Cooper recalled, "I just said, 'Hoo boy!' "
With that hyperpsych boiling merrily inside, Armstrong went bombing down the hill. She made no big mistakes, but she was no world beater either. Her time of 1:12.01 would rank no better than fourth for that second run. Perrine Pelen of France, who got the bronze medal, was better (1:11.76), and so was Hess (1:11.97). So, too, was McKinney, who turned in the best time of the run (1:11.72), which moved her up to fourth.
Cooper's second try was strong, graceful, intelligent—all the things that characterize this skier from Sun Valley. But her run contained one terrible flaw: Five gates from the top, her skis flashed out from under her and—horror of horrors—she slipped. "My hip touched the ground," she said later. "I don't know what happened or why." Somehow she righted herself and charged on. It may have been a bit of ice that caused the mishap, nobody was sure. But it cost Cooper the gold. She finished second, a disappointing .4 of a second behind Armstrong.
Though obviously hurt by her failure to win a gold medal, Cooper was a champion of a runner-up. She said, "I could have really fallen, and then I wouldn't have even gotten what I did. I was lucky, and I'm happy to get the silver. Look, a year ago today I was lying in a bed in South Lake Tahoe [recovering from surgery to repair a compression fracture of a tibia], and I wasn't sure I would ski race ever again."
Armstrong began skiing when she was three, but her early forays into racing weren't impressive. "I usually came in third because the person who was supposed to be third fell," she says. And the slopes were hardly her only sporting venue. "I was a tomboy and still am. I was always competing with guys in ski racing. We'd go cliff jumping. I loved other sports, too. In the street by our house we'd play football, basketball, baseball." When she was in the seventh grade, her family moved to Malaysia for a year, and when they returned to Seattle, Debbie recalls, "My first time back on skis I couldn't stop crying because I couldn't do it anymore, and I thought I'd never be able to do it again."
Wrong. Armstrong has had a skyrocket of a career with the U.S. team. She was promoted to the World Cup circuit in 1982 without even a season on the Europa Cup circuit, the bush league of ski racing, under her belt. Her first big-time competition was a downhill at Saalbach, Austria, and she was struck by the sudden change. She told a friend, "You know, last year at this time I was still going to races in the back of my mom's station wagon." She then made her first World Cup training run, and to everyone's amazement, she won—a full second or so ahead of all the old pros.
But that stunning training run wasn't followed by much competitive success, even though Armstrong spent hours on the slopes perfecting her technique under her mentor-roommate Cindy Nelson, a 13-year World Cup veteran. There were many more hours together on level land, talking about subjects emotional and psychological. Armstrong said after Monday's triumph, "Cindy had a lot to do with this gold medal. She gave me confidence in myself. A couple of nights ago we were in the room and she looked at me real mad and said, 'When do you start skiing? Will you bring home a medal or not?' It got me really fired up, I guess. If she believed that much that I could do it, I thought, well maybe I can."
And she did.