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.
But in that bliss the old sport tugged at her soul. It began with short skiing runs, with Tabor tucked in a pack against her chest. Then it manifested itself at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, where she watched her old teammates and felt the old longing.
"I should be here," she whispered to herself.
"No, I shouldn't," she answered.
"Yes, I should."
A few months after the Olympics, almost as a lark, she entered a race for some of the top skiers in the west. She tied for first. And this time it was Sharbel who offered the words she knew she needed to hear.
"You're wasting your talent," she remembers he said.
So tepidly, Dussault waded back into her old world. She insisted Sharbel and Tabor go with her everywhere. She told people it was a three-for-one deal and that it was a heck of a bargain. She found a team, sponsored by Subaru, that accommodated her lifestyle, found a director of the team who shared her faith. Her teammates took time they never took before to understand her.
And she started to win again, initially in the local races around Colorado, then the regionals and finally the nationals. Even this past year, weakened by the sinus problems, she was good enough to make the U.S. team.
But it wasn't until Frassati that this all made sense. She discovered him in the midst of her comeback at a Frassati festival in Denver. Immediately she was touched. He came from the family that published La Stampa, the main newspaper of Turin, and was considered extremely wealthy by Italian standards. He was an outdoorsman who also cared for the poor, contracting polio from one of those he helped and dying of the disease at 24.
According to legend, his last act was to place a package of medicine in his gnarled fingers and hand it to his sister. "Please take this to the man I was supposed to see today," he supposedly said. And when he died, some 10,000 people poured into the streets to follow his funeral procession.
As Dussault learned these things, she began to weep.
"There are so many parallels," she said. "He's from Turin, the Olympics are in Turin. I'm 24 and he died at 24. He was a model for living life to the fullest. He lived the gospel perfectly. I said, 'He is the patron of my journey.'
"He was a lover of life. He was in love with a girl. He climbed mountains. He was handsome, he came home without his jacket because he would give it to someone who was poor. He ran over the mountain to the seminary to pray, he wouldn't take public transportation so he could give the money to someone who needed it. He was amazing."
Frassati was buried in a park in the middle of Turin. But when a movement rose in 1981 to have him moved to the cathedral, his body was exhumed. The casket was opened and, to the shock of those who looked inside, his body had not decomposed. To the believers, it was a sign that he was incorruptible.
And now Dussault has come here to help make him a saint. She visited along with Sharbel and Tabor in the summer, kneeling in the church and touring the Frassati family home. She was taken to his sister, Luciana, who is 103, and on Friday she was to see Frassati's cousin who had asked to meet the American woman whose Olympic dreams were dedicated to his relative. Undoubtedly the cousin will ask about the medal.
"I think it's impossible" to win, Dussault said. "That's why I say, 'If I win, it will be a Frassati miracle.' "
The other day, she was asked what inscription she would like engraved on her official Olympic ring.
She asked for the letters "Bl. Frassati."
They are here together.