MOUNT ALLAN, ALBERTA, FEB. 24 -- It was demolition derby day at the women's giant slalom.

Bodies were flying right and left as only 29 of 64 starters completed the two Olympic runs today.

Fastest of all was Vreni Schneider, a technical wizard from Switzerland, who knocked control gates this way and that on a fearless second run to capture the first gold for the Swiss women's team.

West German Christa Kinshofer-Guethlein took the silver and Schneider's glamorous teammate, Maria Walliser, claimed her second bronze of the Olympics, finishing third.

Defending Olympic giant slalom champion Debbie Armstrong of the United States was a distant 13th, one place behind teammate Diann Roffe, as the U.S. team's troubles continued.

Tamara McKinney, the only U.S. entry seeded among the top 15, had even less success. Making her first start of the season after a broken ankle, McKinney was one of the 35 nonfinishers, including six of the top 15, when she fell early in the first run.

But a sadder fall by far was that of Blanca Fernandez Ochoa, whose splendid first run had her leading the field, three-tenths of a second ahead of Kinshofer-Guethlein and in great shape for a medal-run finish.

Fernandez Ochoa, from Madrid, was an intriguing longshot, the sister of bullfighter and ex-Olympic gold medalist Paco Fernandez Ochoa. Fernandez Ochoa herself had once killed a bull in the ring. She had only one career win on the World Cup circuit.

But on her second run, Fernandez leaned too sharply into a turn, felt the ankle of her ski boot bang into a bump in the snow and her skis came sliding out from under her. "I was going for the win," she said in Spanish. "It is not possible to go down a slope slowly."

It was a scene that had become familiar by the end of the day as one racer after another fell prey to the tough course and demanding conditions.

Even Schneider looked shaky on the slick, man-made snow that lay baking under a warm sun. The combination of the slippery surface, a tight course and a short, steep mountainside made trouble for all.

On Schneider's first run she briefly lost her balance, then recovered to finish fifth-best. On the second run she took a gate wide near the top, then decided to throw caution to the wind and took a beeline for the bottom, knocking control gates aside as if she were taking them down with a machete.

"I made a mistake in the beginning," she said later, "but then I decided I had to either do something or go off the course, so I gave it 150 percent."

Her combined time was 2:06.49. Kinshofer-Guethlein finished in 2:07.42 and Walliser clocked 2:07.72 to edge Mateja Svet of Yugoslavia by eight one-hundredths of a second.

Schneider said the man-made snow "was very hard, and you can't take a real grip {with the skis}. With the steep slope and the set {of the gates}, you had to go all-out, start to finish."

She was suited to the task. A specialist in giant slalom, Schneider this year has won half the giant slaloms she's entered on the World Cup circuit and is tied for the lead in World Cup standings with teammate Michela Figini, who was 22nd today.

"Now maybe they'll let me on the Super G team," said Schneider, who has been fighting with her coaches for a spot in the cross between downhill and giant slalom.

U.S. team spokesman Nick Howe said Schneider's strength helps her handle slick, steep conditions like today's.

"She has a way of storing energy in the back of her skis {to make hard turns}," he said, "and she's strong enough to still keep her weight forward and keep the skis from shooting out in front of her."

Schneider's victory and Walliser's bronze bring to nine the number of medals collected so far by the powerful Swiss men's and women's skiing teams. Austria is a distant second with four medals.

But only Schneider and Pirmin Zurbriggen, who won the men's downhill, have taken golds for the Swiss. Going into the Olympics, many were predicting the Swiss women would sweep the Alpine competition.

Armstrong, who had never won a race before winning the gold in the 1984 Olympics at Sarajevo and has never won one since, was not a factor today. She said she was "happy it's over," and described the course as "one of the toughest -- more like a super slalom" than a giant slalom.

But Armstrong said McKinney's misfortune "could be a blessing in disguise," if it encourages the veteran U.S. skier to tackle Friday's slalom with increased vigor. "She'll be pumped up," said Armstrong.

McKinney dodged the press and slipped off to practice her slalom alone.