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In Giant Slalom, a Slick Win for Compagnoni

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 1998; Page D11

 Deborah Campagnoni holds aloft the Italian national flag as she celebrates her gold medal in the women's giant slalom. (Rudi Blaha/AP)
SHIGA KOGEN, Japan, Feb. 20 (Friday) — Only some of Alexandra Meissnitzer's glee disappeared as Italy's Deborah Compagnoni made her way down the Olympic giant slalom course at Mount Higashidate this afternoon. In the lead temporarily, the Austrian Meissnitzer stood in the finish area, throwing her arms up as one racer, and then another, failed to surpass her leading time.

But then Compagnoni came down the mountain, skiing easily on this icy, slick course, gradually taking a little luster off Meissnitzer's day. In her last chance to extend her gold medal streak to three Olympic Games, Compagnoni cruised to a gold medal finish with a two-run total of 2 minutes 50.59 seconds.

Meissnitzer won the silver in 2:52.39, and Germany's Katja Seizinger won her third medal of these Olympics, capturing the bronze in 2:53.01. Meissnitzer also won the bronze in the Super-G.

"I was so happy when I saw I had a medal, and then when I saw I had the silver medal," Meissnitzer said. "When Deborah went out at the start, I thought, 'Okay, she should win the gold medal because she is the best skier in the world.' "

Compagnoni's gold gave her one in each of the past three Olympics, dating from the 1992 Games in Albertville, where she won the Super-G. She won the giant slalom gold in 1994 in Lillehammer. In these Olympics, she won a silver in Thursday's slalom.

After the race, Seizinger said Compagnoni might be the greatest female giant slalom skier ever.

 Says Italy's Deborah Compagnoni, who extended her gold-medal streak to three Olympic Games: "I take great pleasure in skiing." (AP Photo)
"What probably distinguishes me is I try to keep a certain natural element when I am facing courses," Compagnoni said through an interpreter. "I try to make the course seem easy. It has to be a pleasure to ski, and I take great pleasure in skiing."

When she swept into the finish area, she was greeted by the cheering and chanting of a sizable group of blue-coated Italian fans waving a soaking wet Italian flag.

"I already had one medal, so I was relaxed," Compagnoni said. "I could see this morning that it was a difficult course."

In an Olympics filled with postponed skiing events, today's giant slalom nearly became yet another victim as cloudy, rainy weather descended on Mount Higashidate after the first run, which Compagnoni led by almost one second over France's Sophie LeFranc, who finished fifth overall. Race organizers moved up the start of the second run to beat the chilly rain.

The conditions were just fine with Compagnoni, who considers icy courses perfectly suited to her daredevil style.

Seizinger failed in her attempt to win a third gold medal in these Games to go along with her golds in the downhill and the combined. Germany's Martina Ertl, the overall World Cup leader in the giant slalom, also missed a medal and finished fourth. Germany, however, has won six Alpine skiing medals.

"I think it was one of the best weeks for the German ski federation, for our team," Seizinger said. "We had the necessary luck to win all these medals. ... This week was a really great one for us."

Compagnoni, 27, has been considered Italy's female version of Alberto Tomba since she won the gold medal in the Super-G in Albertville. It so happened that Tomba won the giant slalom there about an hour after Compagnoni won her race. While she has never been as outspoken as Tomba — or quite as eager to discuss her love life — she possesses a similar appeal among Italian fans, who adore her.

"I've never really competed with him to be more famous than he is," Compagnoni said. "The thing about Alberto is he is also a very special personality. He's a character. There might have been many other champions, but there is only one Alberto Tomba."

Although Tomba crashed during the men's giant slalom Thursday and did not finish, Compagnoni led the women's slalom after the first run but faltered in the second run, finishing second.

Meissnitzer's medal today gave Austria 10 in Alpine skiing. Studying to be a police officer in her free time, Meissnitzer needed some aid of her own after winning the Super-G. She visited a Japanese bath and apparently became dehydrated from the heat and steam. As she was leaving, she passed out and hit her head on some steps. When she came to, a couple of teammates and a doctor were tending to her. Meissnitzer needed seven stitches in her head.

"I didn't feel anything" today, she said. "Maybe I'm faster."

Though she now has won a gold medal in three consecutive Olympics, Compagnoni hasn't always slid easily into success. She encountered a string of injuries in the early 1990s that could easily have ended her career. She suffered torn ligaments in her left knee twice. She has had right knee surgery, a fractured tibia and emergency surgery in 1991 because of a stomach problem that required the removal of two feet of her intestines.

"Things change quite a bit in four years," Compagnoni said. "In Lillehammer, I was more instinctive. This time I was more deliberate. I really wanted this medal."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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