"Everyone is yelling, 'Fairy tale! Fairy tale!' and I guess they're right," said Diann Roffe-Steinrotter. "I have to admit that sometimes when I set my mind to it, I do some pretty unbelievable things."
The latest unbelievable thing Roffe-Steinrotter did was win her first World Cup ski race in nine years. She did it last Thursday in Vail, Colo., where the '93-94 World Cup season wrapped up with grand finales in all four racing disciplines: downhill, slalom, giant slalom and Super G. What's more, it was the last World Cup race of Roffe-Steinrotter's career, and the field featured all three medal winners from the Lillehammer Olympics. That, of course, included Roffe-Steinrotter herself, who only 30 days earlier had flown out of mediocrity to win the gold medal in the Olympic Super G.
She was not, however, one of the favorites in Vail. Her best Super G finish this year before Lillehammer had been 13th, and in her one post-Olympic try she had been 15th. In Lillehammer she had announced that she would retire at the end of this season and that the Super G in Vail would end an often painful career that seemed longer than the 11 years it spanned. "The Austrian and Swiss media keep saying I'm 30," said Roffe-Steinrotter last week. "I'm mature and I'm experienced, but, dammit, I'm not 30!"
She is 26, but her string of competitive peaks and valleys and her run of debilitating injuries and reconstructive surgeries would seem to fit only into a longer life. She underwent her first knee surgery (for an inflamed patella) at 14 and her last (for a blown anterior cruciate ligament) at 23, with three other knee operations and a damaged hand and bad shoulders in between. She won her first major race (the giant slalom at the 1985 FIS world championships in Bormio, Italy) at 17 and her first World Cup event (the giant slalom at Lake Placid) that same year. She did not win a World Cup race or a championship medal of any kind again until the 1992 Albertville Olympics, when she got the silver in the giant slalom.
March 28, 1994
Then came Lillehammer. Then came Vail. "In all my years on the team, I often raced in a sort of neutral zone, but not in this race," Roffe-Steinrotter said. "I cranked up all my faculties, because I did not want to spend the rest of my life regretting that my last race was a bad race."
Starting in fourth position, she slashed down a course filled with bumps and sweeping turns in 1:24.93, a time so stunning that only three women in the field of 22 finished within a second of her. Katja Seizinger of Germany, winner of the overall-season World Cup titles in both the Super G and the downhill, was second, and Austria's Anita Wachter, the '93 overall World Cup champion, was third.
When the last racer crossed the finish line, Roffe-Steinrotter dissolved in sobs, covering her face against a flood of memories. "I couldn't stop crying because I was so sad that it was over," she said. "I don't want to stop racing, but I know I have to stop because I said I was going to stop and because I really do want to stop."
Still, the taste of victory after so long—since that giant slalom victory on New York's Whiteface Mountain on March 13, 1985—triggered a fleeting desire for more. Said Roffe-Steinrotter, "Oh, god, I'd love to continue racing if—if—if! But there's too much travel. And I have a great husband. And we have all kinds of things we want to do. And it's very hard to get up for races at my age. And, god, I cringe when I think back to the awful month before the Olympics, when I woke up so scared every morning—scared that I'd mess up, scared that I wouldn't make the team. But I dealt with that, and I won the gold, and now I've won the last big race of my life. I could hardly ask more of myself, could I?"
Nor could her U.S. teammate Tommy Moe, winner of the men's downhill in Lillehammer. Moe had recovered from a post-Olympic letdown to produce a victory in the Super G and a third-place finish in the downhill at Whistler Mountain in Vancouver two weeks ago, which he followed in Vail with a third in the downhill and a sixth in the Super G. Moe wound up third in the overall World Cup Super G standings, the highest finish in the discipline for an American in World Cup history.
For Moe the future looms full of possibilities, and last week his father, Tom Sr., a steel-construction worker, and his uncle Shane Johnson took charge of Tommy's marketing strategy. They eschewed big-time agents. "Tommy's only real goal is to become a skiing legend," said Tom Sr. "He's only 24, and he can do that if he's a little bit lucky. I just want to be here to help him."
There will be no high-profile agent for Roffe-Steinrotter, either. Although her victories in Lillehammer and Vail transformed her from a hardworking journeyman into a highly marketable heroine, she is retaining J. Kenneth Sowles, a young lawyer from Burlington, Vt., who has been her agent for six years. "I have no desire to be an IMG market fish," she said, referring to Mark McCormack's high-powered International Management Group.
That doesn't mean Roffe-Steinrotter has no plans. "I am marketable in a different way from most skiers because I'm retired, and I don't want the short-term big-splash type of contract," she said. "I want to give something back to skiing and maybe enlighten and inspire people about what it's like to be an Olympian. With all the ups and downs I've had, I think I can do some pretty meaningful motivational speeches. One of my big dreams is to do TV commentary—maybe not just skiing."
Will Roffe-Steinrotter be able to live without ski racing? "One thing I know," she says. "If I don't find something else really competitive to do, I will drive Willi insane. I hope I will fill those needs by riding."
Willi is her husband, Willi Steinrotter, 29, the men's soccer coach at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., who has traveled the World Cup circuit with Roffe-Steinrotter this season. As for riding, she has done that since childhood and now does training in equestrian eventing. Is it possible that Roffe-Steinrotter will win an Olympic gold on horseback?
"Oh, please," she says. "I could never say something as pretentious as that. I'm just a retired skier who loves to ride, and Olympic equestrians have worked for years to get where they are. The whole idea reminds me of the Albertville Games, when Cathy Turner won a gold medal in pack skating and then informed me and a couple of other American ski racers, 'The next sport I'm going to win a medal in is skiing.' She sounded serious, and we just gulped."
Turner was back in Lillehammer as a short-track speed skater, winning another gold. Don't look for Roffe-Steinrotter at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan—unless she's in the TV booth.