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PIRMIN : ZURBRIGGEN : The Pride of the Swiss Mountain Country Is an Often Humble, Yet Daring Young Man Who Could Win Three Gold Medals in Skiing

February 08, 1988|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

SAAS-ALMAGELL, Switzerland — As you can see from this post card, Pirmin Zurbriggen is the center of attention in his hometown. Doppelweltmeister , in case you don't speak German, means that he is a double world champion.

It also could say that he is the most celebrated Alpine skier since France's Jean-Claude Killy, but how much information do you expect for half a Swiss franc?

The post card can be bought at the hotel that Zurbriggen owns and that his family has operated for 20 years, the Larchenhof, which means courtyard of the larch trees. The raw scent gives the crisp, clean air an evergreen flavor.

This is a remote village of 360 people in Switzerland's Valais region, almost halfway to the top of the 11,000-foot Almagellerhorn in the Swiss Alps, about 13 miles by cog train from the Matterhorn and 140 miles east of Geneva.

Looking upon the Saas Valley from a hiking trail above the tree line, Saas-Almagell is almost too picturesque to be real. One journalist who visited called it a Hansel and Gretel village.

Once a town of carpenters and dairy farmers, it now thrives on the tourist trade it can lure from the better known surrounding ski resorts of Zermatt and Saas-Fee. But immaculate barns still outnumber the hotels and condominiums--rush hour is when the cows are led to and from the pasture, the sound of their cowbells somehow adding to, instead of disturbing, the peace--and the most prominent landmark in town is still the steeple of the stone church.

One of the faithful planted an imposing white cross on the side of the Almagellerhorn, overlooking the village, to stand guard against the encroaching modern world. Nearby, a stream trickles down the side of the mountain and into the Sasser-Vispa River, which tumbles through the valley toward the Rhone.

In the Saas Valley, the name Zurbriggen (TSOOR-briggen), which means by the bridge, is as common as Smith or Jones in the United States. When a reporter had a flat tire in Saas-Grund, about two miles down the winding, mountain road from Saas-Almagell, it was repaired at Zurbriggen's Garage. The proprietor said, regretfully, that he is not related to Pirmin (PEER-min).

Upon reaching Saas-Almagell and asking directions to the Larchenhof at the Edelweiss Hotel, the owner said she was Pirmin's aunt. Proudly serving beer out of a tap with her famous nephew's picture on it, she said their family has been here since the 15th Century.

Outside her hotel was a poster, from the local tourist office, of Pirmin on skis, charging down a slope at the 1987 World Championships. In the top right corner was the town's new motto, "Saas-Almagell, Ganz Pirmin!" As Good as Pirmin.

It doesn't get any better than that in Switzerland.

Zurbriggen, 25, was just another good Swiss skier at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, where he finished fourth in the downhill and fell in both the slalom and giant slalom.

But he since has been the world's best, finishing first in the World Cup overall standings in 1984 and 1987 and second in 1985 and 1986.

Besides winning the overall championship last year, he also was first in three of the five World Cup disciplines--downhill, giant slalom and Super G. In the 1987 World Championships at Crans-Montana, Switzerland, he won gold medals in the Super G and giant slalom and silver medals in the downhill and combined. He also won gold medals at the 1985 World Championships at Bormio, Italy, in the downhill and combined, and a silver medal in the Super G.

In case you don't speak skiing, Super G does not stand for the daring downhill racers' rather large, uh, goggles. It stands for super giant slalom and is similar to the downhill but more technical, requiring twice as many turns on a slope that is about three-fourths as long.

In another discipline you may not have seen, the combined, a skier races on less demanding versions of the downhill and slalom courses, and his times are added. The combined was part of the Winter Olympics program in 1936, but the Super G never has been. Both have been added to the 1988 Winter Games, which begin Saturday in Calgary, Canada.

As a result, it is possible for an Alpine skier to win five gold medals in the same Olympics. Only two skiers, Killy in 1968 and Austria's Toni Sailer in 1956, have won as many as three--the downhill, slalom and giant slalom in years when there was nothing else to win. But both competed in eras when virtually every skier entered all three disciplines.

Today, we are in an era of specialization. Only two other skiers besides Zurbriggen, Luxembourg's Marc Girardelli and West Germany's Markus Wasmeier, are competitive in five disciplines. Of the three, Zurbriggen has the best chance to win all five.

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