'94 WINTER LILLEHAMMER OLYMPICS : Super-G Is More Super-Gold for U.S. : Alpine skiing: Roffe-Steinrotter announces retirement after another stunning upset on the slopes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Diann Roffe-Steinrotter can go off and ride her horses now, on summer days along the Raquette River near Potsdam, N.Y. She can stand in the stirrups and catch warm breezes. She can know contentment.

She can carry with her Tuesday's Olympic victory in the women's super-giant slalom at Kvitfjell, the latest American success on the slopes here.

Russia's Svetlana Gladischeva won the silver, Italy's Isolde Kostner the bronze.

For Roffe-Steinrotter, it was the end of a beginning, a last ride into one sunset, the first into another.

She spoke excitedly of plans, of pursuits, of normality, of her love for equestrian, as the metaphor grew of Roffe-Steinrotter upon her white steed, galloping away in the classic hero's exit.

Hers was not a quixotic quest, she claimed, nor her dream impossible.

"I'm sure all of you are surprised," she told assembled reporters.

Shocked might have been a better word.

Only Roffe-Steinrotter could know how she, at 26, found it within her to muster such a last-chance charge for the ages. In the ski business, where careers are short, she was Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters in his 40s.

Except Nicklaus didn't drop his clubs and walk away.

Hours after her stunning triumph in the super-G, an event in which she ranked 36th in the world, Roffe-Steinrotter announced her retirement, effective next month after the World Cup finals in Vail, Colo.

The farewell speech, actually, had been written before the Games--independent of Olympic success or failure. She had to scribble fast to keep one step ahead of the whispers.

She had fought, unsuccessfully for two years, to recapture her last great moment, at Albertville in 1992, when she claimed the Olympic silver in giant slalom. Now, she claims amnesia.

"It's hard to compare today with low points," she said. "Low points don't exist right now."

In an 11-year career, Roffe-Steinrotter has been nothing if not proud. History tends to remember what you did last, not first. She won the world championship in giant slalom at 17, an Olympic silver but, before Tuesday, it had been nine years between international victories.

Her ski clock was ticking, but she refused to go gently.

"I didn't want to cop out," she said. "I wanted to stick it out."

Her best finishes in super-G this season were 28th, 27th and 25th, but there were, she guessed, no laws stating that she could not win. Even so, Roffe-Steinrotter said, she was so prom-night nervous as she stood in the start gate she was "just dying."

By luck of the draw, she was the first skier down the course. Bib No. 1.

Most would say she drew short straw. There are no training runs in super-G. It's a blind race. You can inspect the setting of the gates only by side-stepping up the side of the course.

Olympic rookies might have panicked. But what Roffe-Steinrotter lacked in skiing power, she made up for in know-how. Before the race, she mapped out the course, memorized it.

It was fast on top, more suited to downhillers, but the course tightened in the middle stretch and at the end, which played into her slalom skills.

"I saw the critical turns," she said. "That's experience, I guess."

More than others, she also knew what it would take.

"It takes risks," she said. "That's another advantage of experience. I didn't want to be fourth, fifth or sixth in the Olympics. If you don't risk everything, you won't be there."

Roffe-Steinrotter was ready to risk it all, and it scared her. She had started No. 1 in the super-G at Albertville and crashed.

"Don't think that didn't go through my mind," she said.

Planted too was the memory of Austrian Ulrike Maier, a favorite to win the Olympic super-G, who risked everything and died Jan. 29 in a downhill crash in Germany.

"I thought a lot about Ulli," Roffe-Steinrotter said. "She could race like no other. She should have been an American, the way she raced in big races. If she's up there, looking down, she would tell every competitor on the hill just to point your skis down and give it your best. She was such a fighter. I wanted to do the same thing."

The course played just as she had seen it. Roffe-Steinrotter was slow on top, but held a tight line from the middle through the finish.

Her time, 1 minute 22.15 seconds, meant nothing until it was measured against the field. When she crossed the finish line, Roffe-Steinrotter could only shrug her shoulders.

"I didn't know," she said.

Italy's Kostner skied second and finished .30 behind the American. Knowing of Roffe-Steinrotter's woes this season, Kostner said later she thought she had skied poorly and was out of contention. She ended up with the bronze.

Roffe-Steinrotter's time held through six racers, but had yet to be challenged by Murderers' Row, a list of skiers that included Germany's Katja Seizinger, the gold-medal favorite.

When Seizinger crashed on course, the crowd let out telling gasp.

Slovenia's Alenka Dovzan, wearing bib No. 13, was leading Roffe-Steinrotter by .42 after the second interval, but she, too, skied off course.

Slovenia's Spela Pretnar, from starting position 28, had the lead by .27 before she crashed.

Roffe-Steinrotter had started to relax when Gladischeva, a longshot, started scorching the course from the 35th start. She came up just short, .29 behind the American, which was good enough for the silver, the first medal for Russia in an Olympic Alpine event.

America's Angst turned to euphoria.

"I'm pretty lucky to pull this one off, the way my season's been," Roffe Steinrotter acknowledged. "But no one can take this away. No one can take it away."

Years from now, no one will remember how close the 1994 gold medalist came to not making the Olympic team. Or how Paul Major, the U.S. Alpine director, drew up qualifying criteria the previous summer--ostensibly to fire up or weed out the aging veterans--and how Roffe-Steinrotter had not met those standards.

They won't remember how she had hit rock bottom Dec. 4 in Tignes, France, when she failed to qualify for a second giant slalom run and wondered how much deeper into the bog she could sink.

Major suggested there was nowhere else to go but up.

Or out. It didn't help that the only decent showing for Roffe-Steinrotter this season didn't even count. In January, she was perched in eighth place in a super-G at Altenmarkt, Austria, when the race was canceled after 30 women had skied because of deplorable course conditions.

Yet, when it came time to pick the U.S. team, Major penciled in Roffe-Steinrotter's name. Call it a lifetime-achievement award.

"I don't think he's regretting the decision now," she said.

Major was expecting a strong performance, but certainly not gold.

"It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen in athletics," Major said. "She was down and out, everyone gave up on her. Then, she wins the gold."

The U.S. beat goes on. The super-G gold was the second of the week, a match for Tommy Moe's gold in downhill.

U.S. ski fever is contagious.

Shannon Nobis, 21, brought to Lillehammer to get some experience for the 1998 Olympics, finished 10th in the super-G, a result nearly as stunning as Roffe-Steinrotter's. First-time Olympian Megan Gerety, whose main claim to fame this week is being Moe's girlfriend, was headed for a top-10 finish when she went off course six gates from the finish.

Hilary Lindh finished 13th, her best super-G result of the season.

Major, ebullient and boastful, issued a challenge to the U.S. men.

"Tag, you're it," he said.

Winning heals all wounds.

But even a gold medal can't lure Roffe-Steinrotter back.

She is the only married member of the women's team, having fallen for Willie Steinrotter, a childhood friend. They became more than friends after the 1988 Calgary Olympics, when Diann returned home and Willie asked her to dinner.

Steinrotter's father had taught the young Roffe to ski at the Brantling Ski Club in Potsdam. Willie, a soccer and ski coach at Clarkson University in Potsdam, took a leave of absence to follow his wife to Europe for her last season.

Tuesday, he stood, stunned.

"The only way I can describe it is, if you took all the good days that happen to you, and wrap them into one, that's how I feel," Willie said.

Roffe-Steinrotter feels like the mother hen among chicks on the U.S. team. She doesn't giggle anymore, or chase boys.

Or engage in pillow fights.

"I live a different life than I did at 17," she said. "I like quiet, being at home, spending time with my family. This is not the sport that keeps you at home."

Roffe-Steinrotter plans to devote more of her time to horses. She has been riding all her life and would like to concentrate on equestrian competition.

Maybe go for the gold in that.

If not, it has already been a great ride.

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