Dussault Is Praying for a Miracle

"He is the patron of my journey," Rebecca Dussault, above, said of Pier Giorgio Frassati, who died 80 years ago and was devoted to the needy. (By Matthew Stockman -- Getty Images)
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 11, 2006

TURIN, Italy, Feb. 10 -- In the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista, on the Giardini Reali, Rebecca Dussault fell to her knees and prayed to a man who has been dead for 80 years. Above her rested a picture of Pier Giorgio Frassati, trapped in an eternal youth. Before her lay the crypt that holds his remains.

Frassati needs two miracles to become a saint.

Dussault believes her winning an Olympic medal this weekend will be his first.

Nobody imagines that the most unlikely member of the U.S. cross-country ski team can win her 15-kilometer pursuit on Sunday. In four World Cup races this year, Dussault has finished anywhere from 39th to 47th. Even she realizes the dubiousness of her quest.

Elite ski racers simply don't quit the sport in their peak years, get married, have a child, decide to return on a whim, walk into the Olympics and win a medal. She isn't even healthy; she has been besieged by severe sinus problems that only get worse with vigorous exercise in the cold winter air. Still she keeps pushing. For Frassati. For herself.

"I definitely believe his spirit is alive," Dussault said this week. "I feel he is like my peer, he's my friend. He's not an abstract idea of something that I'm clinging to."

Through the gentle light that trickled in through the cathedral's great windows, Dussault asked Frassati to watch over her, to be her friend, to fill her with the spirit that drove him over mountains and to the knees of the poor. A few feet to her right rested the gilded box that holds the Shroud of Turin, but she had not come for a cloth image that may or may not be the body of Christ. Rather she sought the strength of a rich man who chose to walk with the impoverished.

She believes Frassati is part of the reason she is here five years after she abruptly quit the sport while still America's fastest-rising cross-country skier. Frassati provides a symmetry to her quest: a lover of the outdoors, a Catholic soul, a nurturer to the unfortunate and a native of Turin.

To understand her devotion, you must realize she has been in love with the same person since age 11. Her infatuation was a boy her age named Sharbel in her home town of Gunnison, Colo. When Sharbel's parents, devout Catholics, decided to home-school their children, Dussault insisted that she be home-schooled by Sharbel's mother, as well. Thus began her dedication to religion.

It guided everything she did, bringing her into conflict with the less Christian world that surrounded her. She loved cross-country skiing, thrived on the competition and soon won races all over the country. But the better she got, the more tormented she felt. Her coaches pushed, telling her she could be an Olympic champion. Her teammates drank and partied.

"A lot of it is a secular lifestyle," she said.

And so at 19, with the Salt Lake City Olympics looming and her career seemingly on the rise, she walked away. She married Sharbel, they had a baby boy named Tabor for the Israeli mountain of Biblical significance. And she believed her life would be perfect.

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