As she approached the 30th anniversary of her gold-medal win in the giant slalom at the 1984 Olympic Games, Debbie Armstrong found herself back home in Seattle and, you could say, on top of the world once again.
This time, she had company.
Late last month, Armstrong took her 6-year-old daughter, Addy, for her first outing at Alpental Ski Area, part of The Summit at Snoqualmie resort. It’s the place where Armstrong herself had honed her skills as a child, and where its main run (“Debbie’s Gold”) and its main chair lift (“Armstrong Express”) are named in her honor.
“I love that mountain more than anything,” Armstrong said. “Oh my gosh, for me it is exactly what skiing should be. It’s just rich — it’s so rich in its quality, and the terrain is unmatched. … So I had to have my daughter ski Alpental, and she loved it.”
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The Winter Olympics will open Thursday in Sochi, Russia, nearly 30 years after Armstrong’s 2-minute, 20.98-second golden run on Feb. 13, 1984. It was the first gold medal for the U.S. in the Sarajevo Games and the first giant-slalom gold by an American woman since 1952. Not bad for a 20-year-old barely two years removed from her graduation at Garfield High School.
Armstrong, who turned 50 on Dec. 6, recalled the American media being surprised at her Olympic victory. She wasn’t. In fact, before leaving for Sarajevo, she was interviewed by KOMO-TV’s longtime sports anchor, Bruce King, who asked her point blank: “‘Deb, do you think you can win a medal?”
“And I hated that question,” she recalled, “because I wasn’t a boastful person. But him asking me that question was a little bit of a challenge, and I was also very competitive and I knew what was in me, so I couldn’t not answer. So the answer was, ‘Well, yes, I can win a medal.’ ”
The day before the competition, Armstrong, a basketball and soccer standout at Garfield, was shooting hoops in a gym at the Olympic Village with her U.S. ski team coaches. “I couldn’t miss a shot,” she said. “I mean, anywhere on the court: swish, swish, swish. Everything went it. I was just very in the zone.”
It was quite the omen for her giant victory.
“It was just incredible,” said Armstrong, a member of the U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. “I was really, really young. I think about that now — I was just raw sport, raw athlete, raw energy, and also very sophisticated in my understanding of the sport and the psychology of the sport.”
Another milestone is approaching for Armstrong, who 10 years ago spent six days in a coma at Swedish Medical Center and 12 days total in the intensive-care unit. The bizarre incident occurred in September 2004, after Armstrong was in Central Washington on a weekend bicycling trip.
“I rode my bike 125 miles on Saturday; I rode my bike 75 miles on Sunday, and then Monday I was in the emergency room on life support,” she said.
It was a tick bite, she later learned, that caused her to contract Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, in addition to sepsis; doctors had given her a 25 percent chance of living. She spent a month recovering in the hospital, then a year working back to health.
“When I came out of the hospital, I was operating like a 95-year-old. To go on a 100-yard walk was long,” she said. “But I had the mentality of an athlete, so if a 100-yard walk was what I had, fine, I did it. And then the next day I tried to go 110 yards.”
By the next summer, she fulfilled her goal of completing the 200-mile Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic ride — in one day.
Armstrong’s Olympic gold medal sits in her office in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where she is the Alpine Competitive Program Director for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. “It’s just there to be passed around … and that’s the honor,” she said. “So this time of year, that honor kind of presents itself more because people are interested and people are curious.”
The Steamboat Springs club sent 20 athletes to the Vancouver Games four years ago, winning seven medals, and Armstrong said “a lot” more would represent the club in the Sochi Games starting this week. She oversees a team with 20 coaches and 160 skiers, and there’s one young skier Armstrong coaches who is quickly picking up the sport.
“She’s trying to figure out her relationship with skiing because of her mom,” Armstrong said of her daughter. “She’s a very independent-minded little kid and she’s trying to figure it out for herself and who she’s going to be. … I hope she learns to like it, and she is liking it, but we’ll see.”
Armstrong knows this: Each winter, she plans to return to Seattle and Alpental, her favorite spot, with her favorite young skier in tow, on top of the world once and again.
Adam Jude: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @a_jude.