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Armstrong has the time of her life in giant slalom

Debbie Armstrong became the USA’s first victor in the women’s giant slalom at the Olympic Winter Games since 1952 when she took the gold at Sarajevo 32 years later.

The cheerful skier, from Seattle, Washington, caused a major shock when she outduelled her fellow American Christin Cooper over the two runs to earn the US its first alpine ski medal for 12 years in a shock 1-2 triumph.

Armstrong, overlooked by the media before the event, came from nowhere to triumph in a field that included leading skiers such as Erika Hess of Switzerland, the pre-race favourite.

It was only her second year on US ski team, and she had never finished higher than third place in any World Cup race. But 20-year-old Armstrong arrived in Yugoslavia determined to have fun.

The night before her race she relaxed by watching Peter and Kitty Carruthers of the USA take silver in the figure skating pairs, then stayed up late eating peanut butter.

Come race day, she arrived at the starting gate on Mount Jahorina without a trace of nerves – chanting “have fun! Have fun! Have fun!” to herself.

Cooper later recalled in an interview that her teammate said to her: “I’m just going to have fun out there, just have fun, have fun! When you go down, I want you to relax and just have fun, because I'm going to have fun.”

She raced 15th in the field, giving her the advantage of receiving continual advice from Cooper and their fellow American Tamara McKinney on the state of the course. In the event, Cooper alone bettered her first run.

While other athletes might have found the three-hour wait for the final run a trying time psychologically, Armstrong remained sunny. She said afterwards: “I felt so good at the top – I was so happy waiting for the second run.”

Her infectious enthusiasm translated into a polished performance. When Hess faltered, she was suddenly a real threat for gold. When Cooper slipped five gates from the top, and McKinney also lost precious seconds with a mistake, Armstrong was catapulted to victory, recording an overall time of 2:20.98.

Cooper, who lost by 0.4 of a second, was gracious in defeat, and the gold and silver medal winners embraced at the finish.

Armstrong said after her win: “I had no expectations of winning gold but I knew I could do well on this hill. I felt really good when I woke up this morning. Those were the two runs of my life. I wasn’t holding back anything – it was a gas.”

It was to be her last international race victory. After Sarajevo, she never achieved better than fourth place in the World Cup slalom and downhill events, and she eventually retired at the end of the 1988 season.

But Sarajevo lingered in her memory, and in Cooper’s. Following the devastating Bosnian war in the early 1990s, Cooper wanted to give something back to the host city of the 1984 Games, so she founded the Humanitarian Olympians for Peace.

Meanwhile, Armstrong became a spokeswoman for Releaf Sarajevo, an organisation that aimed to reforest the devastated landscape around the shattered city that hosted her finest sporting moment.

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