MOUNT ALLAN, ALBERTA, FEB. 23 -- After an up-and-down skiing season, which is just the latest chapter of her up-and-down life, Debbie Armstrong finds herself back at the Olympics, a defending champion with almost no chance to defend her championship.
Wednesday at Nakiska, she will run the race she won out of the blue at Sarajevo, the women's giant slalom. If she finishes in the top 10, her coaches will be happy. If she gets to the bottom in one piece, expends all her energy and has fun, she will be happy.
"This Olympic experience is going to be absolutely as special as Sarajevo," she said. "No matter what happens, I'm going to look back on Calgary and I'm going to be proud and I'm going to be lucky to have been here."
Debbie Armstrong has never had a finer moment as a skier than she did at the Winter Olympics of 1984. A fresh-faced 20-year-old from Seattle, she stayed up late the night before her race eating peanut butter. The next day, she finished second on the first run and fourth on the second run, but her combined time was good enough to beat teammate Christin Cooper by four one-hundredths of a second to win the gold medal. It was the first and only time Armstrong won a world-class race.
It also was one of the few times she was racing healthy.
Armstrong has injured a knee, broken her leg twice and dislocated it once. The dislocation took place last summer in Argentina, where she was training. A pin was put in her fibula and she couldn't ski again until the end of the year. Although she had a respectable 18th place finish in the women's super giant slalom Monday, she looked tentative and isn't expected to come close to a medal Wednesday.
"It's difficult for her not having total confidence in the leg," said U.S. women's ski team coach Chip Woods. "She's just starting to be her old self . . . People don't come back so quick. It just doesn't happen that way."
Perhaps it does happen that way in Armstrong's mind. "When it comes to the Olympics, it's just a whole new planet," she said.
Armstrong, the only U.S. gold medalist from '84 to return in '88, went to the opening ceremonies. "I wanted them to be over because I was so excited, it almost bothered my training."
So she went back to Nakiska. At the top of the mountain the day of the women's super giant slalom, she got off the chairlift and skied across rocky terrain toward the start. "A rock, a big rock" got in her way. Armstrong went tumbling down an embankment and became tangled in protective netting.
"There I was, hanging upside down," Armstrong said. "I had to crawl my way out of the ditch. It was kind of interesting."
Armstrong, now 24, seems to be taking it all in stride. All the pratfalls and missteps seem worth it.
"Sometimes you're going 70 mph down a hill and you say, 'How many times in life does someone give you a free ticket to do 70?' Or maybe you make a perfect turn and there's this rush.' "
Whatever turn she takes, Armstrong welcomes it.
"Winning a gold medal, I was put in a position where I became a role model if I wanted to. I did. It was right up my alley," she said.
In 1984, Armstrong went through the Olympics as an unknown. Before her gold medal race in Sarajevo, she shot baskets.
"I was so high athletically. Every shot went in. I was so in tune with myself. But I'm not going to play basketball before this race. It's a whole new race. It's a completely different experience this time around. The Olympics is hype. That's what gives me energy this time."
Now, 1984 "feels like yesterday and it feels like an eternity ago" to Armstrong.
"My goal this time is when I get to the bottom, I don't want to have any energy left in my system," she said. "I don't want to get to the bottom and be frustrated. I want to be happy with my race. It almost sounds selfish, but I'm racing for me, me, me."