Some athletes talk about treating the Olympics like any other event. Others fear or embrace it for its uniqueness. Washington State ski racer Debbie Armstrong came to Sarajevo 30 years ago this season, in 1984, with wide eyes, anxiously looking forward to that different feeling she anticipated in the starting gate.
"I could hardly wait," she told a group of 80 U.S. Ski Team Olympic hopefuls last week at a U.S. Olympic Committee Team USA Ambassador Program at Copper Mountain. "I wanted to step into the starting gate and experience the difference of the Olympics. I wanted to know what it would feel like."
It felt pretty good golden, actually.
Armstrong, just 20 and with not-nearly the experience of her teammates, was hardly the favorite. She was skiing in the shadow of powerhouse teammates like 1982 triple-World Championships medalist Christin Cooper and reigning World Cup champion Tamara McKinney. Armstrong's best was a third in a World Cup just a few weeks earlier. All eyes were focused on McKinney and Cooper. Armstrong was there to have fun.
In the first run, Cooper flashed to a lead with Armstrong second. McKinney victimized by a first run error was well back in 11th. Originally scheduled for the following day, the second run was moved to the same day as the first today the sport norm with the top five reversed. Armstrong went fourth, moving ahead of France's Perrine Pelen. That left Cooper to ski for the gold. But a hip check on the top of the course took its toll, dropping her to silver. McKinney, meanwhile, led the second run to move all the way up to fourth.
Debbie Armstrong, the pride of Seattle's Garfield High, was the Olympic champion!
Speaking to the aspiring 2014 Olympians, Armstrong reminisced about that day and the experiences that transformed her. "The Olympics are an amazing platform that can change your life," she said. She talked about the energy she found by absorbing the experience like new friends she met, ice dancers Peter and Kitty Carruthers. The night before the GS, she stayed in her room at the village to watch them win silver. "I wanted to feed off the energy of them winning their medal. Watching them in my room and having that personal connection with them just propelled me the next day."
History will tell the story of 17 U.S. skiers and snowboarders winning 21 medals in Vancouver. But right alongside that amazing Olympics will be the historic five-medal output by the U.S. Ski Team in Sarajevo, including three golds half the titles at stake! It was Armstrong and Cooper in GS, Phil and Steve Mahre in slalom and Bill Johnson in downhill.
"We were quite a team at that time," said Armstrong. "We weren't all best friends but we certainly all respected one another and we definitely pushed each other. No doubt about it, we made each other a better team."
It was almost a surreal site on the medals stand that evening two Americans standing one-two. Two American flags being raised side-by-side. Two extraordinary American athletes experiencing something that would impact the rest of their lives. Deb couldn't help but laugh with giddy excitement.
"I was 20 years old. I knew that all 300 million people in the states could be watching people I didn't know. I knew all my friends would be watching, my friends' parents, all my friends' grandparents, all Americans. Everyone had a connection to me.
"I didn't know these people. But I knew it was a gift I was able to give to all of them. That was the larger Team USA the people back home that supported me and who felt a part of that day."
Deb Armstrong was a part of history that day in Sarajevo. Today, she remains close to her sport as alpine director for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, ever anxious to share her own experiences as an Olympian to help the next generation.