At the top of Whiteface Mountain, where the wind-chill factor was 30 degrees below zero, a tiny star began to twinkle today. In time it may be the brightest that American ski racing has ever known.

Her name: Heidi Preuss.

The true meaning of today's Winter Olympic downhill for women is shrouded in mist, like the top of Whiteface, and shaggy with implications, like the firs here that droop under their new coats of snow.

This was one of those symbolic athletic afternoons, laden with final honors and grand farewells to old favorites, but also with hints of the future.

The ski world cheered as Austria's Anemarie Moser-Proell, six-time World Cup champion, capped her non-pareil downhill career with long-overdue Olympic glory.

And Americans felt sympathy as hard-luck Cindy Nelson, a bronze medalist in 1976 who has overcome two broken ankles, a dislocated hip and a broken shoulder, went down in seventh-place flames. This bitter failure may presage her retirement.

Today belonged to the sublime mad-woman, Moser-Proell, and to those other familiars, Hanni Wenzel and Marie-Theres Nadig. But tomorrow may belong to a chunky 18-year-old cherub who finished fourth; a relatively unknown New Hampshire lass who gave notice that she may soon be the United States' most celebrated skier.

The 5-foot-4 Preuss, in only three months, has emerged as heir-apparent queen of skiing's most glamorous race.

"Within a year, or two at most, Heidi will be at the very top of the donwhillers," said U.S. Coach Ernst Hager.

"Soon, Moser and Nadig will retire," said U.S. Coach Michel Rudigoz. "Then Heidi will win the World Cup. That's for sure."

Even Preuss has a hard time hiding her desire to be a queen of the mountain.

"I was disappointed today," said Preuss, who would have been considered a grand success had she placed 14th, not fourth. "I expected to win the bronze. I didn't expect Wenzel to do so well. I really thought I would be third?"

Then Preuss, who claps her hands with delight and giggles at the slightest provocation, became serious: "I wish I had four more years behind me, like the three ahead of me who had all been in three Olympics. In fact, I wish I had just one more year.

"That's all I need. About one more year of confidence and maturity. When you watch Moser-Proell you can sense her aura of confidence. You can almost see it. She does amazing things. She dares things I'm not ready to try yet."

Then Preuss said with a simple, measured dignity: "I would like to win the World Cup some day soon."

Not someday, but some day soon.

"The World Cup proves you're the best. The Olympics shows you can handle great pressure on one given day," she said.

"I hadn't run the downhill in three years," said Preuss, who has skied since she was 3. "I thought I'd give it a try in December."

Suddenly, she has finished fourth in five different World Cup races -- a far cry from the 1978 season she missed entirely with a back injury.

"It's only recently that I learned that I had what it took for the downhill," said Preuss, being prodded for specifics. "Well, I guess it's part courage. And it's learning to let your skis release and not worry about always having them under control.'"

In other words, it's almost all courage, and the innate love for wildness that lets you fly down a mountain at 80 miles per hour.

"It feels like being on a roller coaster, but safer. Why is it safer? Because you're in control. If all your parts are working the way they should, it's no problem."

Having all those parts working, rather than having them mutiny without warning, is a blessing of youth.

Nelson, an "aged" woman of 24, wishes she still had the unconcious reflexes that made her U.S. downhill champ when she was Pruess' age. Now, she's got the psychic yips.

"I was terrible," Nelson said. "I'm very disappointed. I'm one of the best in the world, but I didn't show it.

"My mind was behind what was happening instead of being ahead of what was happening. At the top, I was bouncing around and seeing my skis land almost crosswise. You go from being ahead of what's happening to thinking about what you're doing at that instant, and then suddenly you're hopelessly behind. I didn't get straightened out until the last 15 seconds."

Just two years ago, Nelson was second in the World Cup downhill standings -- the highest finish by any U.S. skier, man or woman, in a major international event. Now she's wondering if injuries, age and bad luck are going to finish her.

"Maybe it's time to get out. I keep thinking about it, said Nelson. "Today, when I saw how fast the conditions were -- just the way I like them -- I was so encouraged.

"If I had the run of my life, I thought I could win the gold. Then, I went out and let myself down. By the time I got to the bottom, I just put my arms out. It certainly wasn't a gesture of elation. I just thought, 'What next, Lord.' I knew my time wouldn't hold up for a medal.

"What really bothers me," said Nelson, "is that I'm convinced I haven't reached my potential yet. If I didn't think I was among the best in the world, I wouldn't be out here spending my whole life on this."

Few athletes, however, see themselves -- either their potential or the reality of where they are -- with total clarity. We often see others more sharply than ourselves.

Just so, Nelson knows exactly where Preuss' career is at this moment.

"Whether Heidi knows it or not, the hardest part for her is about to come," said Nelson. "It's relatively easy to climb up to a level where you're competitive. But it's awfully hard to take that last step up to the top.

"In fact, after you've reached the level where she is now, it's surprisingly hard just to stay where you are.

"Heidi's come up very rapidly. She's strong and a good glider. Now she'll be tested psychologically."

To Preuss, that prospect still seems like great fun.

"I've known I wanted to be a skier since I won my first race when I was 8," said the 120-pound Preuss, who has the fireplug physique of Nadig and Wenzel.

"The only thing I'll miss (in her first season as a full-time world-wide downhiller) is going to school. I like to learn, especially math and science. dCalculus is my favorite now. I'm definitely going to college someday. But I can always learn. I can only ski now."

Several U.S. coaches surrounded Preuss, kissing and hugging her. "Time to practice the giant slalom," said one.

"Does that mean I've made the (three-woman) team" for Wednesday's giant slalon race? asked the delighted Preuss.

"I'll name the team on Wednesday morning," said the coach, trying to look severe with his star pupil. "Just go practice now."

Presuss gave her bubbly smile. The U.S. -- with its fourth, seventh and 14th-place finishes today -- had just completed its best overall downhill showing by men or women in any Olympics. And Preuss had led the way.

"Where do I go and what do I do?" asked Preuss, a portrait of jubilant pliability, of her coach.