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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

But although that is possible, it is not probable. The rage of the current World Cup circuit is Italy's Alberto Tomba, whose strongest event, the slalom, is Zurbriggen's weakest. Tomba, 21, won 7 of the first 10 slaloms and giant slaloms and, until 10 days ago, led Zurbriggen in the overall standings. That was before Zurbriggen won his second downhill of the season at Schladming, Austria, the last downhill before the Winter Games, to overtake Tomba.

Tomba la Bomba, the Bomb, is a flamboyant playboy and not a little self-absorbed, calling himself the messiah of skiing. Zurbriggen, a devout Catholic who carries a picture of the Virgin Mary in his address book and says Pope John Paul II is the man he most admires in life, accepts the existence of only one Messiah. Zurbriggen is as different from Tomba as, well, Switzerland is from Italy.

So Zurbriggen might not win more than two or three gold medals. He says he will be pleased to win even one. For such statements he is known in Switzerland as Pirmin the Modest.

In a country that makes legends of straight arrows, Zurbriggen is the most admired man since William Tell. If he is unpopular with anyone, it is the journalists, who complain that he never gives them anything to write about away from the slopes. His girlfriend is Moni Julen, a ski instructor in Zermatt and sister of Max Julen, Pirmin's best friend and gold medalist in the giant slalom at the 1984 Winter Olympics. Even Max says he can't persuade Pirmin to join him for an evening out more than once or twice a season on the ski circuit.

That makes for dry reading in the best-selling biography, "Pirmin: Human and Champion." It is all about what a Super G he is--super guy. The people of Saas-Almagell say that success has not changed him, that he still is the same young man who used to wash dishes in the Larchenhof and who occasionally plays trumpet in the town's 60-piece band. No, they say, they can't remember him as a singer in the choir. But that is what he looks like, a fresh-faced, blond-haired, blue-eyed choirboy.

"He is so simple, Pirmin," said his sister, Heidi, and that really is her name. "He is not a person who thinks he is better than anyone else."

Heidi, who waits tables in the Larchenhof's dining room, talked about her brother between trips to and from the kitchen. There is evidence of him throughout the hotel, which he bought recently from his parents to relieve them of financial burden and to give himself an investment. He can afford it. The journal Ski Racing estimated that Zurbriggen earned $2 million last year.

Except for the oldest of the three children, Esther, 27, who has a house in the village with her husband, Swiss Family Zurbriggen lives on the top floor of the four-story hotel, which is constructed of wood and brick and perhaps gingerbread. The 40 other rooms rent for $57 a night, including breakfast and dinner.

There is a small trophy case on the ground floor, just off the small lobby, but the rooms in the basement, the dining room and the lounge, are virtual shrines to Zurbriggen. Most of his World Cup trophies and world championship medals are there, the more prominent ones displayed in a handcrafted rosewood trophy case presented to him by the townspeople.

But one's eyes keep returning to the painting in the dining room. In it, snowflakes float against a deep blue background from one of Zurbriggen's crystal World Cup trophies onto Saas-Almagell while he and Saint Bernadette observe from above. Visions of Virgin Mary led Bernadette, the daughter of a poor French miller, in the mid-19th century to the healing shrine of Lourdes in southwestern France.

Heidi explained that one of Zurbriggen's fans painted the picture and gave it to him. He has made five pilgrimages to Lourdes with his family.

"Pirmin goes to say thank you," Heidi said. "He prays not for victories but for safekeeping from accidents and illness."

His prayers, for the most part, have been answered, although he might have won the World Cup overall title in 1985 had it not been for a knee injury. Even then, he won two gold medals and a silver medal at the World Championships three weeks after arthroscopic surgery.

He also was distracted that year by Heidi's illness. The world junior combined champion in 1984, she was bedridden for much of the next year with a virus that caused her joints to swell and prevented her from walking, much less skiing.

When her brother was traveling with the circuit, he called every night, and when he was home, he sat by her bed for hours and entertained her. Heidi, 20, has returned to the deep Swiss women's team but, except for her last name, does not stand out. She was 14th in the downhill at the 1987 World Championships.

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