In Switzerland, where learning to ski is practically the birthright of every child, Yurg Schiess gave his daughter Gabriele her first pair of skis when she was four years old. These were special skis. They turned out to be survivors, just like her parents--and just as she was going to be, over and over again.
Indeed, it had been only a year before Gabriele's birth that the Swiss-born Schiess and his German wife, Ursula, had fled the second World War to return to his homeland. They had been living for several years in Austria and Germany, where Schiess worked as a metallurgist. By 1944, however, the war drove Schiess from Leipzig, and he took his wife and two children back to Switzerland.
Gabriele remembers stories her parents told her about living in Germany during the war, of how they would hide in the cellar of their apartment building during the Allied bombing attacks and run upstairs after the noise had stopped to put out the fires.
The wooden skis, badly scorched in one of those raids, were among the few belongings Gabriele's parents were able to take with them on escape from Germany. When her father thought Gabriele was old enough, he found the skis and cut off the burned tips. They not only had survived. They were just the right size.
For the young Gabriele, it was the first lesson in how hardship could be transformed into something positive. But it was not to be the last.
Gabriele Andersen-Schiess, who turned 40 in March, is no stranger to adversity, as the millions who viewed the first women's Olympic marathon last summer already know. In one of the most searing images of the 1984 Games, Gabriele--competing for Switzerland--struggled through the last 500 meters of the race suffering the grotesque effects of heat exhaustion. Her face slack, her body twisted, she lurched around the coliseum track, moving away from officials who offered to help her.
It was a painful scene that few will forget. The mail still arrives at her home in Ketchum, Idaho, long after the Games have ended. People talk about her courage, her iron-willed determination to finish and her close call from possible brain damage, even death.
But this was not an incident born of inexperience, nor the case of someone trying to run beyond her limits. Gabriele Andersen-Schiess is no novice--she has run more than 20 marathons, including a personal best of 2:33:25 in Sacramento in 1983 and a first-place finish in 1982 in the grueling Pikes Peak Marathon.
And she will tell you casually--and disarmingly--that her life has been filled with moments like this, that it has always had adventures and misadventures, accidents and close calls--all for her love of sports. She does not believe an occasional flirtation with danger is too high a price to pay for having fun doing the things she loves. Her roguish face, tanned from months of skiing and running in the rugged Idaho winter, wears a puzzled expression. How can you enjoy life if you don't take a chance now and then?
"Sometimes there are times when I'm scared," she says. "But I just try to overcome my fear. Mentally, I have a certain toughness. I don't let things discourage me. I'm not afraid of death. I'd rather die doing something I enjoy than get old and senile and become an invalid. I think it's all just fate."
Some might call her foolhardy, even reckless. But she trains arduously and competes with the talent and vigor of a woman half her age. It's just that she has this tendency to get into trouble. And not just in the Olympics, as we will shortly see.
"I knew I had to stay within the orange cones, but I just couldn't walk straight," she says, recalling her final torturous minutes in the Olympic marathon. "I knew what I wanted to do, but my muscles wouldn't respond anymore. It's hard to accept when your mind wants to do something, but your body says no."
Had the doctors pulled her off the track, she says she probably would have gone with them, but only because she was too weak to resist. She is happy they allowed her to finish.
"Look at how quickly I recovered," she says. "I remember thinking when I came out of the tunnel into the stadium: I've gotten this far. I'm going to crawl, if I have to, to finish.
"I just didn't want to give up. Two years ago, I never thought I'd be in the Olympics. And I may never have another opportunity. It was something very special for me, much more so than for the younger runners."
She stands in the kitchen of her open-beam cedarwood house, a gleaming snow-covered mountain looming behind her backyard. She and her 38-year-old husband, Dick Andersen, live in Ketchum, a historic mining and sheepherding town where Ernest Hemingway is buried. Dick, a warm-featured man with thinning red hair and a matching moustache, is assistant manager of the Sun Valley resort where Gabriele teaches skiing.