Armstrong has always seemed to thrive in big moments and has proved to be quite the fighter, whether it was defeating a life-threatening illness and more recently, coming to grips and learning how to cope with traumatic brain injury.
Thirty-four years after she burst into national consciousness with two brilliant ski runs in Sarajevo, everything is right in Debbie Armstrong’s world.
She not only understands her place in history, but she embraces it.
Armstrong, who grew up in Seattle, went to the 1984 Winter Olympics as a big longshot and left as a national sensation, on the cover of Sports Illustrated after winning the giant slalom and giving the U.S. women their first gold medal in alpine skiing in 12 years.
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Armstrong always has seemed to thrive in big moments and has proved to be quite the fighter, whether it was defeating a life-threatening illness or, more recently, coming to grips and coping with traumatic brain injury.
So if Armstrong, 54, never has another athletic moment to compare with what happened on that magical day in 1984, that’s fine with her. She has a history degree from the University of New Mexico, a job she loves — helping train talented young skiers in Colorado — a 10-year-old daughter who has taken up the sport and peace.
“I couldn’t be happier with my life,” she said.
By the numbers
Debbie Armstrong shocked the world by winning the giant slalom at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
Top-10 finishes in her World Cup career (7 in downhill, 3 in the Super-G, 5 in giant slalom, and 3 in the combined)
Seasons she competed in World Cup events
Age when she made her World Cup debut, age she retired
And she had an experience in 1984 few in this world can relate to.
An instant star
Armstrong was considered the least likely of the three Americans to earn a medal in the 1984 giant slalom. Tamara McKinney of the U.S. was the defending World Cup champion in the event.
But Armstrong, who was a standout in soccer and basketball at Garfield High School, was confident. She had just concluded the best month of her career, finishing third in a World Cup Super G event, in addition to a fifth-place finish in a giant slalom event and a sixth in combined.
Some athletes say the best way to be successful in a big event is to treat it no differently than any other event. But this was the Olympics, and Armstrong had the opposite outlook.
“I did handle myself differently that day,” she said. “And the way I handled myself differently was the key to my success. I was fully in the moment to take in the unique situation of the Olympics. I did not want them to pass me by in some sort of blur.
“I wanted to be fully aware of the Olympic experience. I wanted to be aware of what the run was feeling like, aware of giving it my all. I was really excited, and it kept me present and in the moment.”
And maybe because of that, when she made her first run, she was in “the zone,” the place where all athletes strive to be. For her, it happened on her sport’s grandest stage.
“When you’re in the zone, you don’t think results,” she said. “When you are in the zone, you don’t think of outcome. You are in the moment of executing. Thinking about outcome and results takes away from executing. I was contained within myself, and it was the optimal mindset. It was the place to be physically.”
And it all paid off in a first run that had her in second place behind American Christin Cooper. It was uncharted territory for Armstrong, and she remained in a good spot mentally despite having to wait about three hours before her second and final run.
“It was new territory, but it was also familiar because it was right where I expected myself to be,” she said. “I had consistently been in the top 10 (in events before the Olympics), so on any given day you can pop in there. I was there to win a medal, and I was very sure in my ability to do that. So it was not a surprise to me. I was right where I expected to be.
“Still, I had to manage myself (in the three-hour interim). I was not overly nervous. I was very content and within myself. I felt no extra burden, and I maintained my zone. I was pretty quiet, and I had a lot of adrenaline. I was in the zone.”
And soon, after a spectacular run, she etched herself into history, defeating Cooper by .40 seconds. McKinney took fourth. Armstrong somehow had stayed in the zone.
“I was not burdened by a single thing — pressure, fear, what-ifs or anything,” she said.
From the moment she finished, life would never be the same for Armstrong, even if she was the same.
“The medal does not define me. I know who I am. But the Olympics shaped me in a lot of ways, and how people saw me,” she said. “The way my life changed was all of a sudden everyone on the planet had a perception of me. That’s not negative or positive. I just continue to do my work and lead my life and not live in the past.”
An early end
The next year was a tough one competitively, as Armstrong dealt with the pressure of competing as an Olympic champion, but she did finish fourth in the giant slalom at the World Championships.
Then after a strong start to the 1986 season, she suffered injuries that hampered her that year and the next. Then, in 1988, when she was not getting the guidance and leadership she felt she needed from the U.S. team, she retired at age 24.
She never had another top-three finish after her Olympic victory.
“I had another 10 years in me to be a viable athlete, and no, I don’t think I realized my potential as a ski racer,” she said. “I could have had more podium finishes and medals, but I don’t need that. I do not regret it one bit. I couldn’t be more grateful with my life and the trajectory.”
Not that the end was easy.
“Transitioning from being a world-class athlete to a regular person is a difficult transition,” she said. “It’s not an easy process. I have empathy for any athlete who transitions. But I wouldn’t shy away from it, and not want to do the next phase.”
Armstrong went back to school, and earned her degree in history at New Mexico.
She also became certified as a ski instructor and was an assistant coach on the New Mexico ski team. In 2007, she began working for the Steamboat Springs (Colo.) Winter Sports Club, which helps develop some of the country’s finest skiers.
Along the way, she has overcome a life-threatening infection and symptoms from previous brain trauma.
In 2004, a severe reaction to a tick bite left her with what she has said was a 25 percent chance to survive.
As she likes to tell the story, she was riding her bike 200 miles on a weekend day, and by Tuesday she was on life support, suffering from acute respiratory distress syndrome and sepsis.
She spent a month in a hospital, including six days on a ventilator in a medically induced coma, then endured a much longer recovery.
A few years later, Armstrong was battling again. She wasn’t feeling like herself. She was struggling with agitation, concentration and confusion, and she didn’t know why.
“I struggled for quite some time juggling my job and being a single mom,” she said. “I knew I was off, and it took every bit of my energy to appear normal for my child and my demanding job. When I got home and had my own time, I was completely wiped out and felt like I was dying, losing ground. I knew my life was not sustainable because it was taking so much energy to not be agitated. It took so much concentration.”
Armstrong switched to a less stressful job, leading the U-10 program at SSWSC, and three years ago, she finally found an answer. She was diagnosed as suffering from the cumulative effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI), which is similar to CTE that affects many football players.
“I had a number of hits on my head as an athlete and ski racer,” Armstrong said. “I also had toxic trauma to my brain (from the reaction to the tick bite). I was also a downhill skier, and dealing with downhill, there are a lot of G forces. G forces affect the brain. There is also microtrauma from vibration that jars the brain. It’s different than being a linebacker, who is taking big, massive hits.”
Armed with the knowledge of what was causing her symptoms, Armstrong has learned how to manage them.
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“I feel normal,” she said, “I manage my stress level and my workload. I am doing work that is really optimal. I feel 100 percent. I’m Deb.”
Another Armstrong star?
Armstrong’s 10-year-old daughter, Addy, is in the U-12 program at SSWSC, after years in the U-10 program that her mother oversees.
“She’s still very young, but right now she is still very engaged and enjoys it,” Debbie Armstrong said. “We’ll see where it all goes.”
Mom and daughter occasionally ski together, and they’ve figured out a good relationship on the mountain.
“I will ask her, ‘Would you like feedback?’ and it’s 50-50,” Debbie Armstrong said. “Sometimes she does and other times she doesn’t, but I always honor her answer.”
Home sweet home
Armstrong’s parents still live in Seattle, and she visits four or five times a year.
She makes a point of making the trek to Alpental Ski Area, part of The Summit at Snoqualmie resort. It’s where Armstrong learned to ski, and the main run has been named “Debbie’s Gold” and its main chairlift “Armstrong Express.”
“Alpental is my favorite mountain on the planet,” she said. “I bring my daughter so she can know how spectacular it is. She thinks it’s cool (the ski run and chair lift were named in honor of her mom). They remember me there, and it’s an honor.”
And it was all made possible by two glorious minutes on the slopes in Sarajevo, when she cemented herself in skiing history.
“I could not be more grateful to be one of the few persons who own a gold medal,” she said. “I embrace that and everything that comes with it. It’s awesome.”