Roffe-Steinrotter Pulls Upset in Super Giant Slalom

By Angus Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 1994

LILLEHAMMER, Norway, Feb. 15 The U.S. skiing team came to the XVII Winter Olympics with the dimmest medal prospects, but for the third straight day an American this time, Diann Roffe-Steinrotter sped down the slippery Kvitfjell slopes to unexpected success.

In an Olympiad in which American medal contenders such as speed skater Dan Jansen and luger Duncan Kennedy have seen glory literally slide away, Roffe-Steinrotter, a diminutive 26-year-old from Potsdam, N.Y., won the super giant slalom today, in part, because a number of prerace favorites slipped and crashed on the icy, tricky course.

Roffe-Steinrotter, silver medalist in the giant slalom at the 1992 Games in Albertville, France, had not won a race in nine years. She arrived here after suffering through her worst season, her top finish before today a 13th in giant slalom in Morzine, France.

She also had the misfortune today of being assigned the day's opening run. No one likes to be No. 1, with no training runs and no tracks to follow.

Roffe-Steinrotter said she was "sick-to-my-stomach nervous" staring down from the start house in the cold morning sunshine. She went out cautiously but hit her stride quickly and put together the smoothest run of the day, with nary a flaw evident.

"I was in the zone," she said. "It was like a waterfall."

Roffe-Steinrotter's gold medal gives U.S. Alpine skiers their highest total since 1984, with 10 of the 12 events still to go. How big a surprise is that?

"It's the most amazing thing I ever saw," said women's skiing coach Paul Major. "There's a fever catching in our athletes. Anything can happen."

First it was Alaskan Tommy Moe swaggering in Sunday to win his first world-circuit race ever with a gold medal run in the men's downhill; then Olympic novice Kyle Rasmussen and Moe finished two-three Monday in the first half of the combined, setting themselves up for possible medals when that two-day event concludes Feb. 25.

Now comes long shot Roffe-Steinrotter to take the first-ever women's Super G medal for a U.S. Olympian and the first American women's Olympic Alpine gold in 10 years.

Battling numerous injuries, Roffe-Steinrotter's record was so poor she wasn't included in the pool of the 15 top entrants who draw for the best starting slots for the Super G, which is a shorter version of the downhill with wider turns. Although she eventually won by a victory margin of .29 seconds a rout by Super G standards Roffe-Steinrotter had to wait a while to celebrate.

Her time of 1 minute 22.15 seconds looked reasonably solid after No. 2 starter Isolde Kostner of Italy followed with a 1:22.45, but Roffe-Steinrotter said she had no idea she was firmly in the gold-medal hunt until a number of other skiers were down some literally.

Nine starters failed to finish as the steep, twisting turns on the Kvitfjell course designed for men took their toll. (Originally, the women were scheduled to race on another course, but several of the best skiers protested, saying it was too flat and too easy. They said they wanted to be challenged.)

Several competitors were ahead of Roffe-Steinrotter's pace when they spun out, including favorites Katya Seizinger of Germany, Alenka Dovzan of Slovenia and Bibiana Perez of Italy, who smashed spectacularly through a set of gates.

As rivals went down or came up short, a crowd built around Roffe-Steinrotter, but she held off celebrating until No. 35 Svetlana Gladischeva of Russia was across in 1:22.44, beating Kostner by one-hundredth of a second for the silver medal.

Roffe-Steinrotter's mother, Kay, and brother, Christopher, were waiting to greet her at the finish line. They had a cellular phone with them and called her father, Bob, in Rochester as soon as the race was over, Kay Roffe said. Today was declared Roffe-Steinrotter Day in Norwood, the northern New York village where the skier lives with husband Willi Steinrotter.

At 5 feet 4 and 132 pounds, she was easy enough to hoist and took her victory ride on her coaches' shoulders. Afterward, she described her feat:

"It's one day, one hill, one and a half minutes, and whoever shakes and bakes the best is going to win a gold."

It came at a good time in what may be her last shot at glory. Roffe-Steinrotter's career has been up and down since the 1985 world championships. She's headed home at season's end to Potsdam, where her husband coaches skiing at Clarkson University and she keeps horses. She's planning some competitive riding but no more ski racing.

Meantime, she has another medal to shoot for here in the giant slalom, the event in which she won a silver medal two years ago in Albertville. "Maybe I shouldn't race in anything but the Olympics and world championships," she said, smiling.

Her coaches said 10 years of experience gave Roffe-Steinrotter the impetus to push the safety envelope enough to win here, and she agreed. "If you don't risk all at the Olympics, you won't be there at the end."

The dazzling U.S. skiing start has the Olympic community buzzing. This was to be the year of American misery on the slopes. Sports Illustrated called the U.S. team "woeful" in its pre-Olympic edition, predicting: "Slovenia, Luxembourg and New Zealand all have better chances to take home more Alpine medals from Lillehammer than Uncle Sam's lead-footed snowplow brigade."

But Roffe-Steinrotter said Moe's win in the first Alpine event Sunday got the team fired up. "What an inspiration," she said. "He's on an unbelievable progression. He wasn't a favorite coming in but he skied brilliantly and I said, 'I can do that too.' "

Also, Roffe-Steinrotter's teammate, Shannon Nobis, 22, was aglow after a 10th-place finish today, and Moe's friend Megan Gerety, also 22, was dashing down the hill with a shot at the top five when she crashed in sight of the finish line.

That's the spirit, said Major.

"We all knew it could happen, but it's the most amazing thing to see someone who's down and out come out and ski a gold-medal run. The men put a lot of pressure on us and now we've answered.

"All I can say to them is, 'Tag you're it.' "

Copyright 1994 The Washington Post