CALGARY -- Nobody outside tiny Saas-Almagell in the Swiss Alps knows the mind of silent, simple, mysterious Pirmin Zurbriggen, the crazy-courageous choirboy of Alpine ski racing. He speaks little, reveals less, then hurtles down mountains as heedless as a howling wind. So, ignorant of his soul, the world will just have to guess what befell peerless Pirmin Wednesday in these Olympics on the cloud-shrouded slopes of the Canadian Rockies.

Perhaps the wild competitive heart of a downhiller betrayed him. When caution would've insured a second gold medal, Zurbriggen chose to ski like Zurbriggen -- flat out, with his tips a hair's breadth from the stakes. As a result, he hooked a gate and fell on his pink goggles, handing the men's Alpine combined title to his stunned friend, Hubert Strolz of Austria.

Zurbriggen might as well have stood atop Mount Allan and hurled his medal, and his chances of equaling Eric Heiden's five gold medals in one Winter Olympics, into one of Nakiska's deep piney gorges.

Before Zurbriggen's final slalom run, one of his closest pursuers, Canada's Felix Belczyk, was asked what Zurbriggen needed to do to win. "Just stand up," he said. That's how large the leader's margin was under the point formula used in the combined to evaluate one downhill and two slalom runs.

Yet, at the mountaintop, doubts were arising. "Some of us said, 'He looks nervous. He's not going to finish,' " said Finn Jagge of Norway. "But I never thought I'd be right. He never falls."

Even Strolz felt he had no chance. "I would have been satisfied with the silver behind Pirmin," he said.

"If he had been skiing not too aggressively, he would have made it. He had so much advantage {from Tuesday's downhill and Wednesday morning's slalom run}."

Now the ski world can warm its toes by the fire debating Zurbriggen's fall.

Was his strategy flawed? "He goes too hard. This was an easy course, too easy for a slalom specialist like me," said Armin Bittner of West Germany. "Pirmin's line at the gate is very tight. With him, there is always a big chance to get a gate between the legs."

Was his training solely focused on winning the downhill -- the medal of his heart's desire -- leaving him open to the narrow margins of error in the slalom? Strolz thought so; on his winning run, he admits he hit a gate squarely, perhaps one-quarter inch from disaster.

Or, were Zurbriggen's nerves frayed and his mind tired by the hoopla following his downhill win over teammate Peter Mueller? Because of Sunday's downhill postponement, he did not have even one day to rest.

"I had a very hard day after the downhill race. There were no minutes to myself -- except a glass of champagne with {Manager Marc} Biber," Zurbriggen said on Tuesday. "Slalom is very hard. I haven't been skiing much slalom since the start of the season, so I need some training."

Still, Zurbriggen is a former world slalom champion. He was hardly on foreign turf. And, in his morning slalom run, he wobbled twice in the same upper part of the course where he later fell. Any time in the top dozen on his second slalom run would have iced the gold. Shouldn't such a preeminent champion be able to manage such a modest task? Some in his world will judge him harshly.

"It looked like a classic choke," said Tiger Shaw, a star of the U.S. ski team. "He knew exactly where he stood. That just does not happen to Pirmin. He must have been uptight. The combined is the race that would do it to you. Three runs, a night to sleep on it. Plus, the slalom course in the combined has the sharpest turns and the best chance to hook a tip . . . The other skiers are stunned . . . I think Pirmin will lose his English quickly."

"It was bad luck . . . I think I skied a little too close to the gates," Zurbriggen said.

No one need pity Zurbriggen. The downhill gold was a prize of a lifetime -- a win worth a million dollars easily. Zurbriggen still will be the favorite in the super giant slalom, a race that blends downhill speed and recklessness with wider slalom turns. Finally, he will be a slight underdog to Alberto (La Bomba) Tomba of Italy in the slalom and giant slalom.

Still, Zurbriggen had a chance to make these XV Winter Games his stage. Figure skating is lovely, speed skating brutal, but Alpine skiers, in their Spider-Man tights and black visors out of "Star Wars," are the undisputed glamor kings of winter sports. All things being equal, nobody is their equal. They win all ties. If Zurbriggen had somehow won five golds, a long shot but conceivable, Heiden would have had to step aside as the greatest of all Winter Olympians.

Now, he won't.

Perhaps in 20 years, when Zurbriggen writes his memoirs, he will tell us what thoughts and plans ran through his mind during the two hours between his slalom runs Wednesday, two hours when he knew that all he had to do -- at least by his standards -- was "just stand up" to win his second gold and start a drum roll to his building fame.

Until testimony arrives to the contrary, why not assume that a great champion, especially one who feels that he is a downhiller to his bootstraps, knows only one way to race. Hellbent.