NAGANO, Japan — “Come, Alberto, we take walk.”
“Si, Mitchi,” Alberto Tomba says. “We take walk.” I pat him gently on his shoulder, and we move along the mountain path, the cold morning wind shaking snowflakes from the trees.
“Vino, Alberto?” I say, taking a flask from my satchel.
“No, Mitchi, grazie,” he says.
“Panna?” I say, taking a roll from my pouch.
“No, Mitchi, grazie.”
“Dolce?” I say, offering a candy bar.
“No, Mitchi.” He pats his growing stomach. “I am still in training, si?”
“Si, Alberto. For one more day, you are still in training. But there is something I must speak to you about.”
“Then speak, my wise friend,” he says, taking out his pocketknife and whittling a stick. “Alberto always listen to Mitchi.”
I am dreaming, of course. Alberto doesn’t listen to a thing I say. Oh, sure, we go way back, more than a decade, back to when he was just a loud, flashy, bushy-haired Italian kid on the World Cup ski circuit, and I was a new sports reporter.
Back then, he rattled the alpine world, this partying playboy, this ham from Bologna, this dashing man who once screamed, “TOMBA IS LA BOMBA!” I was there when he blitzed down the mountain in the 1988 Calgary Olympics, taking double gold in the slalom and giant slalom. I was there four years later, in Albertville, 1992, when he grabbed two more medals, a gold and a silver. I was there in Lillehammer, in 1994, when he came from 12th place on his final slalom run to grab a silver medal and send the crowd into hysterics.
“We share many medals, Alberto,” I say.
“Si,” he says, as he shoos goats from our path. “Mitchi has always been there for Alberto.”
I have been there, all right. I was there when Tomba declared, “I am the messiah of skiing!” — in Italian, of course. I was there when he said, “I used to celebrate with three women until 5 a.m., but now, because I am older, I take five women until 3 a.m.!” I was there when he publicly declared his love for German skater Katarina Witt, and promised her the time of her life if she would date him. She turned him down, you recall.
“Why she no like me, Mitchi?” he says. “Why? Why?”
“Let it go, Alberto,” I say.
He sighs. “Maybe I have some bread now.”
“You’re in training.”
“Ah, si, I forget.”
You try being Tomba for a while
You can see he is not what he used to be. He is thicker. He is slower. His jowls sag a bit and his hair is more stringy. Why he’s even at these Olympics is a bit of a mystery, since four years ago he promised he would retire.
“Remember, Alberto?” I say, wagging a finger. “In Lillehammer, when you said you would only come to Nagano as a spectator? And when a big fat reporter stood up, you pointed at him and said, “See this man? That is Tomba in Nagano! Hah!’ “
“Si, Mitchi,” he says. “I remember.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Ay, ay, ay,” he sighs. “Being Tomba, she is not easy.”
That much I can see. Even though Tomba is fading fast, the demands are still there. He is still a national hero in Italy. He has many endorsements. Even underwear ads. He has his own web site (complete with photo gallery). Interviews. Film offers. The paparazzi, flashing bulbs wherever he goes.
“Tomba, he is animal in cage,” he says.
“He is rat in box. He is bear in trap.”
“Maybe Tomba have to eat his leg to escape!”
“Uh, you think you’re laying it on a little thick here, Alberto?”
He sighs. “Si, si, Mitchi. Once again, you are wise.”
He tugs his collar over his thick neck.
“Maybe I have some wine now,” he says.
“You’re in training.”
“Ah, si, I forget.”
Food for thought: He doesn’t like snow
I am worried about Tomba. In his first race here, the giant slalom, held on Thursday, he lasted just 15 seconds before slipping around a gate and crashing into the orange fence. It was awkward. It was ugly. He lost a ski, and came up holding his butt.
“Not a pretty picture, Alberto,” I say.
“No, Mitchi, is bad,” he says. “My bottom, she hurt.”‘
In the old days, that didn’t happen. In the old days, Tomba skied wildly but his strength and amazing reflexes allowed him to save even the most on-the-edge runs. That’s how he won.
Now, at age 31, those reflexes are dulled. Slicing through the gates is not as easy as it used to be. Although he has won a few races recently, he now fails more than he succeeds. He has just one Olympic event left, the slalom, on Saturday, but who knows what his chances are in that? A few days ago, Alberto said he doesn’t like snow anymore, that he wants to try water skiing, someplace warm.
“La dolce vita,” he says, pointing to the sun. “This is now Alberto’s dream.”
“So you’re going to settle down?”
“Si. No more La Bomba.”
“Find a nice girl.”
“Si, one girl — no more five or six.”
“And you won’t come back for any more Olympics?”
“No, no, Mitchi, Alberto is finito. Tomorrow, she is my last race. Alberto win the gold, go home.”
“Win the gold?”
“Si, si. One more miracle for Tomba.”
We walk along quietly. Maybe he is right. Maybe he’s not finished. Maybe you can never count out the heart of a champion, no matter how much tread he has on his tires.
“Mitchi,” he says. “My friend. My paisan. Can Tomba ask you question?”
“Do you still have that candy bar?”
Then again, maybe he’s finished.
To contact Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.