The natives called it the Campionati del Mondo di Sci Alpino, and it went on for 12 days near the medieval villages of Bormio and Santa Caterina, deep in the Valtellina, a dead-end valley in the Italian Alps. Each day the various campioni di sci were transported by horse-drawn sleigh up the Via Roma, the ancient main street of Bormio, to the 12th-century church of Santi Gervasio e Protasio, where their medals were presented. All of this lent an air of timeless goodwill to the 1985 Alpine Skiing World Championships, and it was both fitting and proper that the hero of heroes, triple medalist Pirmin Zurbriggen, 22, of Switzerland, is known to carry a picture of the Virgin Mary in his address book and is almost as famous for the devout-ness of his Roman Catholic faith as he is for the splendor of his ski racing. It was also fitting—though a bit less proper—that the youngest and happiest champion of them all, Diann Roffe, 17, of the U.S.A., was so wired after her victory in the women's giant slalom that during ceremonies at the church she placed a big smackeroo on the cheek of the nearest dignitary. That happened to be Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Archbishop of Lombardy and a right-hand man to Pope John Paul II.
The feats of Zurbriggen were amazing but predictable—as were the five medals a supercharged Swiss team added to his. The victory of Roffe was only amazing—as were the three medals a previously so-so American team added to hers.
Lively and little at 5'3", 110 pounds, Roffe combines the face of a pixie with the grit of a pioneer feminist. She's the daughter of a businessman from Williamson, N.Y., a village near Rochester. She began skiing at three, and the early start helped because her victory in the giant slalom last week occurred at the tender age of 17 years, 319 days. The number 319 is important because were it five lower Roffe would have been the youngest person ever to win a skiing world or Olympic championship. As it was, she was second-youngest, to Michela Figini of Switzerland, who was 17 and 315 when she got the gold in the Olympic downhill last year at Sarajevo.
Roffe was the darkest dark horse to win a major title in a long time. She'd made the U.S. four-woman giant slalom team because of a hairbreadth mathematical edge she had over 14-year veteran Cindy Nelson, who, at 29, is the oldest woman on the World Cup circuit. Skiing on a knee with Gortex ligaments, Nelson has been a mere shadow of what she once was; her best World Cup finish this season was a ninth. Roffe's best also had been a ninth. Using the numbjngly complex FIS scoring system as a tiebreaker, U.S. coaches had to take Roffe for the GS in Santa Caterina.
The most highly regarded American woman in the giant slalom was Tamara McKinney, 22, who was the women's overall World Cup champion in 1983 and, early in these world championships, had won a surprising bronze medal in the hybrid downhill-slalom combined event. Starting second in the GS, McKinney came over a knoll too fast near the bottom of the course, missed a turn and fell. Always the competitor, she skied to the finish area, grabbed a walkie-talkie and radioed a warning about that bump to her three teammates—Sarajevo gold medalist Debbie Armstrong, starting ninth, Eva Twardokens, 18th, and Roffe, 19th. Later, U.S. coach Brad Ghent said, "Sad as it was, Tamara's fall helped us a lot."
Forewarned by McKinney, the Americans blasted through the first run and wound up with Twardokens first, Armstrong fourth and Roffe fifth. On the crucial second run, as Roffe recalled, "I was real relaxed in the start and anywhere in the top six would have been a good finish. But I was really hyped, I had nothing to lose since I was such an underdog. So I just let 'er rip." She ripped everyone else right off the course, finishing .6 of a second better than runner-up Elisabeth Kirchler of Austria. Third was Twardokens, 19, while Armstrong, 21, who has not won a race since Sarajevo, was fourth.
Roffe is as bright and full of common sense as any 17-year-319-day-old woman around. "I know there will be pressure," she says, "but there's a difference between on-hill pressure and off-hill. I'll probably be hounded off the hill, but I don't think it will change my skiing." She is an A student as a senior at Burke Mountain (Vt.) Academy and reads voraciously. "I just finished Uncle Tom's Cabin," she said last week, "and it hit me real hard. It was very depressing."
Her ultimate reaction to her championship was also charged with emotion. "It didn't really hit until the day after the race," she said. "I came back to my room. It was full of flowers. I couldn't stop myself. I lay on the bed and I cried and cried. I was the world champion."
The bronze won by Twardokens was a bit less surprising than Roffe's gold: Twardokens had had no fewer than six Top 10 World Cup finishes this season, including a second in a super giant slalom at Arosa the week before the world championships. She is the daughter of an Olympic fencer from Poland who defected during the world championships in Philadelphia in 1958 and is now a doctor of kinesiology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Twardokens was national junior freestyle champion of her age group when she was 12. More versatile than Roffe or Armstrong, she finished a creditable 10th in the Bormio slalom, which neither of the others entered.
American medal No. 4 came in the men's downhill, a kind of happening that no longer seems incredible. However, it was not won by William Dean Johnson, the talkative gold medalist of Sarajevo. Johnson caught a 24-hour stomach bug three days before the downhill, lost five pounds and finished 14th. So who should come out of the pack to get the bronze medal but Doug Lewis, 21, of Salisbury, Vt. No fan of Johnson, Lewis said, "Last year I had been bothered by his success, and I was constantly racing against him, trying to beat him specifically. This season I decided that attitude got in the way of good skiing, so I started racing against myself." Lewis, who started 19th, was tense while he waited for his turn and then suddenly relaxed in the gate. "Someone yelled, 'Have fun, Lewie!' So I just punched it and enjoyed myself all the way down," he said.