Italians refer to 1992 Olympic champion Deborah Compagnoni as "Tombagnoni," the female Tomba. They have the romantic notion that she might bless Alberto with her wholesomeness. She insists that it won't happen.
"Everyone in Italy says skiing is only Deborah Compagnoni and Alberto Tomba, and some say that she is a girlfriend with Alberto," says Compagnoni's friend and teammate on the Italian Olympic team, Bibiana Perez. "Many people think she is with Alberto, because they have been photographed together, because she trains with Alberto sometimes. It isn't true."
It certainly seems unlikely. The 27-year-old Tomba is a wild and woolly womanizer from the city of Bologna, while the 23-year-old Compagnoni still lives in the mountain village of Santa Caterina in the hotel Baita Fiorita ("Flower Hut"), owned by her parents. It is here that she has painted flowers on the doors, the walls, the cabinets. "Roses," she says with delight. "They are my favorite because I can make them in any color."
Of Tomba she simply says, "We are friends. We are both good in skiing, but in person we are not the same."
Italians have loved Compagnoni and Tomba as a pair since Feb. 18,1992, the day they were declared the prince and princess of Italian skiing. On that Olympic morning in Val d'Isére, Tomba, a two-time gold medalist at the 1988 Games, raced to the lead in the first run of the giant slalom. After watching his run on television, the 5'5", 130-pound Compagnoni was inspired to do likewise in nearby Méribel. From the depths of the 16th position in the women's super-giant slalom, she battered open the gates with her forearms and raced like Tomba down the course, plowing the wind with her chin. Her time of 1:21.22 earned her the gold. Later that afternoon Tomba's near-perfect second run in the GS concluded the greatest day in the uneven history of Italian skiing.
A day later Italians would embrace their Deborah again, after she lost her line in the giant slalom. Trying to turn back against the speed she had learned from Tomba, she fell and looked up in agony from the snow, the ligaments in her left knee torn to shreds. "I raced the day she won, and everybody was happy for her," says teammate Morena Gallizio. "The next day when she fell, it hurt the feelings of the whole nation. She was crying. She became much more popular from the injury."
In 1988 Compagnoni tumbled in a race and tore ligaments in her right knee. Two years later she suffered from peritonitis, and 27 inches of her small intestine were removed. After the Albertville spill she needed most of last season to regain her nerve on the slopes.
In Lillehammer, if the conditions are difficult for others, then they will be just right for Compagnoni. Give her an icy course, her camp says, and she will win a medal in the giant slalom—so far this season she has won three World Cup GS races—and maybe in the Super G as well. Understandably, the same conditions might also be her downfall. "If I have another injury like this, " Compagnoni says, slapping both knees, "then no more."
With an uneasy heart, the country bands together around Tomba and Compagnoni and sends them to the Olympics, hand in hand. In Italy it is an image as strong as any wedding picture.