Zurbriggen is “King of the Downhill,” Mueller doomed by his No.1 Bib

CALGARY, Alberta — His gold medal was slipping away, second by fleeting second, and all Peter Mueller could do was stand there and watch. By luck of the draw, he had been the first skier on this Olympic downhill. Some luck. He ripped the virgin mountain for all it was worth, a great run, a daring first 20 seconds, almost losing a ski on the third curve, then a speed tuck through the middle, then a blazing finish, exploding over the moguls like buckshot. It was a manly race, it made you want to hit somebody and say ‘Damn!” But now he stood helpless in the snow, watching the giant screen and the split times of skier No. 14 — his Swiss teammate and rival — Pirmin Zurbriggen.

“He’s going faster,” the crowd whispered.

Already a dozen men had bombed down the Mt. Allan slope trying to catch Mueller’s mark of 2:00.14 — a hell of a time, really, because going first meant new snow was just lying there, unpacked, to slow Mueller down — yet no one could do it. An Italian named Mair veered wide and landed in the safety net. A Canadian named Stemle lost control and skied off the course.

The top hopefuls were almost gone. But now Swiss fans were screaming as Zurbriggen, 25, descended in a tuck, poles back, hands together. He looked like he was praying; surely, Mueller was. At 30, he already had finished second in an Olympic downhill, four years ago, to American Bill Johnson, thank

you. He didn’t need to do it again.

The digits spun madly.

“HERE COMES PIRMIN! . . . ”

If anything was sacred in skiing, Zurbriggen would have tripped, or missed a gate, or stopped to tie his shoe. Instead he streaked across the finish in 1:59.63, won the gold, kissed his skis, and booted the tradition of colorful, bad boy downhillers right off the slopes.

Mr. Dull wins Mount Excitement.

Peter Mueller is the silver man again. Now this is no knock on Zurbriggen, who has the face of an angel, and a similar itinerary. He prays often. He lists his hero as: “Pope Paul, II.” The son of a Swiss innkeeper, Zurbriggen is a sweet champion, a role model the way Donny Osmond might be a role model. But the downhill?

This is the world’s premeir guts-for-glory event. As dangerous as you can get without an engine. Better it should have gone to Mueller, a man who one U.S. skier calls “a linebacker,” a man who runs training hills with a friend on his back, a man who, you will notice, bears a scar on his forehead.

“How did you get it?”

“Walked through a window.”

“Why?”

“I don’t remember.”

Better a guy like this should win — particularly a guy on his third and last Olympics, particularly a guy who not only had to go first, but also had two starters who didn’t speak the same language. “The first man tell me I have 40 seconds to start, the man on right say 10 seconds,” Mueller explained afterwards, “then all of a sudden, I go.”

Considering that beginning, this may have been the race of Mueller’s life. What a story, to win the gold on the very first run! And he almost did it. But Zurbriggen, an excellent technical skier who handles turns and jumps like Baryshnikov, had the advantage of a better starting number, and the knowledge of what he needed. He won by half a second.

So Mueller lumbered in, a silver medalist again, and conducted a press conference in three languages — French, German and English — speaking all three himself. This sentence stood out:

“I hate being No. 1. Je n’aime pas No.1. Ich will nicht der No. 1 sein.”

Or something like that. The irony is, had the race been run on Sunday, as originally scheduled, Zurbriggen would have gone fifth, Mueller, 11th.

“Would you like to race again, same course, same conditions, you No. 14 and Zurbriggen No 1?”

“Sure!” he said. “When?”

“Next Olympics?”

“Oy vey.”

Four languages. Yiddish.

Mueller gave Zurbriggen credit. He won fair and square. But the two teammates do not like one another. Mueller is the old school downhiller: wild, unpredictable, in love with speed and adversity. Zurbriggen says things like: “Being a champion doesn’t mean I must live like a rock star.”

And make no mistake, he is champion — with four more potential gold medals in these Games. But on this day, this medal, this mountain, well, it might have been nice to see the old linebacker take one home.

“Will you retire now?” Mueller was asked.

“We’ll see. A friend told me: ‘Better to be old and fast than young and slow.”‘

Better, still, to be the winner. But that was history now. It seems a pretty cruel way to lose, watching a guy eclipse your mark while you stand in the snow. What to do? Nothing to do. A real downhiller doesn’t hang around. He just picks up his skis and goes.

And off walked Mueller, holding the hand of a beautiful blonde woman, who, one figures, did not come with the race. You had to wonder what he did with that No. 1 official bib. Maybe he kept it, a symbol of how close you can come to your dreams while still falling short.

Then again, maybe he ate it for breakfast.

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