Italy's Ski Golden Girl

Deborah Compagnoni – Skiing’s Golden Girl

Deborah Compagnoni – Skiing’s Golden Girl
In a man’s world, Italian ski-racing champ Deborah Compagnoni brought Olympic glory to the ladies
By David K Gibson

Popular imagination, and the media that feed it, have long divided Winter Olympic heroes-to-be into neat, established narratives. The women are represented by a beglittered ice dancer with a heart-wrenching backstory; the men are a jumble of manly ski racers — your Tombas, your Maiers, your Moes. But this year, most of the powerful, driven ski racers looking out from the magazine covers are women. And much of the thanks goes to an Italian ski racer named Deborah Compagnoni.

A fixture on the World Cup podium throughout the 1990s, Compagnoni really made her mark in the Olympics as the only ski racer to have won golds in three Winter Games. In sexist parlance, she “skied like a man.” Naturally aggressive on the slopes, Compagnoni was lucky enough to reach her peak just as advances in equipment— carbon Kevlar materials, Titanal alloys, evolving side cuts, taper designs — allowed smaller racers to excel through technical ability rather than sheer strength. She mastered the equipment, and so mastered the racecourse.

After suffering through knee injuries and surgeries early in her career — and only weeks after her first World Cup win —Compagnoni won her first gold in the 1992 games, in the super Gat Méribel. Butthe very next day, she fell in the giant slalom, tearing another ligament. Realizing that her knees would never heal well enough for speed events, she began to concentrate on technique. Just before the ’94 Olympics, Ken Shulman wrote in The New York Times, “the 23-year-old pushes her weight dangerously forward onto the tips of her skis, assuming a tight, aerodynamic crouch as she cuts an astonishingly straight line between the gates. When she is on, Compagnoni and her skis appear to be one creature, speeding down the course in a perfect economy of movement.” Her technique, reminiscent of teammate Alberto Tomba’s, was unique in the women’s events. She soon mastered the slalom and giant slalom, winning World Cups and world championships and taking Olympic gold in the giant slalom in Lillehammer in 1994 and Nagano in 1998.

Compagnoni today leads a quiet existence in Italy, though her marriage to Alessandro Benetton (of the eponymous clothing empire) and her national ski-hero status keep her in the society pages. She is also the founder and president of the nonprofit association Sciare per la Vita, which organizes skiing events to raise money to fight leukemia. She’s still on skis, and still making a difference.