FEBRUARY 20, 1984
Four days of heavy snowfall had become six feet of frosted quicksand on Mount Jahorina, forcing Yugoslav organizers to call in the army to ready the women's giant slalom run for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Within hours the slope was dotted with soldiers marching on skis to stomp flat the snowdrifts. The tactic worked, and the next morning the course, a stunning Alpine route curving through towering firs, was ready when a red-cheeked, previously anonymous American named Debbie Armstrong came to the starting gate chanting her mantra, "Have fun! Have fun!" Armstrong hurtled through two runs to bring the U.S. its first gold medal in the event since '52. Earlier, standing with her teammates during the opening ceremonies, she had marveled at the host city's hospitality and what she remembers as the "rainbow of color" among the surging, dancing Croats, Muslims and Serbs.
Within a decade, land near the stadium where Armstrong stood had become a graveyard, the seats of Olympic venues had been used to make coffins, and the army had long since stopped employing skis as its primary weapon. More than three years of ethnic warfare ravaged Sarajevo to the point that almost all the city's trees were gone, burned in the attacks or uprooted to provide fuel for the besieged citizenry. After the aboveground timber was gone, Sarajevans had sprinted out between volleys of sniper fire to dig up the stumps, leaving only the lifeless brown of turned soil on the surrounding hills.
Now, with Armstrong's help, the city is literally showing new life. As a spokesperson for Global ReLeaf Sarajevo, Armstrong is drumming up support for a campaign to plant 300,000 trees in and around the pockmarked city. Coordinated by the White House Millennium Council, American Forests (a nonprofit conservation group) and the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee, Global ReLeaf hopes to restore Sarajevo's urban forest and stabilize its barren hills, which have fallen prey to landslides. The 37-year-old Armstrong, who quit racing in 1988 and has since earned her B.A. in history from New Mexico, says, "One of the happiest days of my life was in Sarajevo, in that stadium. It may sound corny, but to have the opportunity to give something back is very special."
Armstrong, who's single and works as a ski ambassador for Taos (N.Mex.) Ski Valley, hopes to return to Sarajevo soon to personally aid in the effort. She proudly points out that 20,000 of the seedlings have already been planted, the first step in restoring at least one color to the city's rainbow.