Bighaus column: Rocky skier gains from aunt's Olympic glory

2013-02-07T20:00:00Z 2013-02-08T00:44:03Z Bighaus column: Rocky skier gains from aunt's Olympic glory The Billings Gazette

When Heidi Armstrong was in fourth grade she had somebody special to present for show and tell: her aunt.

Olympic gold medalist skier Debbie Armstrong made quite an impression on the boys and girls that day at Upper Blue Elementary in Breckenridge, Colo.

"She brought her little postcards and autographed them for all of my classmates," recalled Heidi, who is now a junior on the nationally ranked ski-racing team at Rocky Mountain College. "She brought her medal and her video.

"One of my classmates — she was on the ski team with me — almost passed out. She wouldn't even talk to her. She was so nervous."

These days, Heidi, 21, is appreciative of the encouragement, knowledge and inspiration she has received over the years from her aunt, who captured the gold medal with a thrilling victory in the giant slalom at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

"I can't remember how old I was, but the first time I saw her medal we were visiting her in New Mexico where she was going to school," Heidi said. "I think she was babysitting me and my little brother. We got to see her medal and hold it and everything. I still remember that."

Debbie, who grew up skiing and racing at the Alpental Ski Resort in Washington state, was 20 when she became the first U.S. woman in 12 years to win the gold in alpine skiing at the Olympics.

Her feat — accomplished years before Heidi was born — landed Debbie's smiling face on the cover of Sports Illustrated and earned her the title "Queen Of The Mountain."

"I've seen her Sports Illustrated and all that," Heidi said. "My grandparents have pretty much told me everything about it. At our family reunions, I've watched her winning run video. She always brings her medal."

Heidi competes in the slalom and giant slalom for the Battlin' Bears. She went to nationals last winter in Sunday River, Maine, where the Rocky women placed sixth as a team.

She has been working harder on her starts and is looking to go faster this season as the Bears set their sights on regionals at Red Lodge Mountain Feb. 21-23 and the United States Collegiate Ski Association national championships in Sun Valley, Idaho, March 6-9.

"She's not only just a gold medalist, she's a ski instructor," Heidi said of her aunt, who now lives in Steamboat Springs, Colo. "She really knows what she's talking about. She's really helped me."

Heidi, who grew up in Breckenridge, also bears a strong resemblance to her aunt.

"People say I look more like her than my parents," Heidi said with a laugh. "Looking at pictures when she was growing up and when I was growing up, we're very similar."

When it comes to skiing, Heidi has been racing since she was eight years old, and is a longtime member of Team Breckenridge.

"My whole family skis," Heidi said. "My grandparents have been ski instructors forever. My dad is the head coach of my ski team at home. Now Debbie is the head coach of her team in Steamboat Springs. My brother ski races.

"For Christmas every year, we all go skiing together. For Thanksgiving, we ski. That's our family thing. That's what we do."

When Debbie won at the Olympics, she mentioned in news stories that she kept reminding herself in the starting gate to "have fun."

As a youngster, Heidi said she was "hesitant and scared" when it came to careening down the steep slopes.

She said that Debbie, now 49, helped her get over her fright and has had "quite a bit" of influence on her throughout her years of racing  through courses.

"She always said 'you shouldn't be scared,' " Heidi said. " 'It's OK to be nervous, but it's not OK to be scared.' "

Debbie, who also placed 13th in the GS at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary before retiring as a racer, continued to offer her expertise on the mental and technical aspects of skiing over the years.

"We've sat at my house and gone over videos for hours, with both her and my dad (Olin) sitting there analyzing me," Heidi said.

A psychology major at Rocky, Heidi said she wants to eventually become a sports psychologist. "Debbie talks to me about that a lot," she said.

Heidi, who went to school for a year in Sweden before transferring to Rocky, said she heard about the school and its successful ski-racing program from a couple of Summit High School classmates — Bobby Hillyer and Alex Guras — who had competed in the past for coach Jerry Wolf and the Bears. 

"I'm glad I'm here," she said.

While the instruction and support from her aunt has been invaluable, there are other privileges that come along with having an Olympic gold medalist in the family.

Heidi said as a teenager she got to ski down a run — called Debbie's Gold — with her father and mother, Asa, at Alpental in Washington's Snoqualmie Pass.

That's where Debbie grew up racing — and the popular intermediate run is a salute to her Olympic glory.

The ski area also has a high-speed quad chairlift named "Armstrong's Express."

"It was cool skiing on a run that was kind of my family's run," Heidi said. "It was fun. It was kind of intimidating, though, because it's a steep run."

NOTES: Heidi's 19-year-old brother, Max, is a freshman member of the ski-racing team at Sierra Nevada College, located in Incline Village, Nev. The men and women from Rocky and SNC are rivals on the slopes. ... Rocky's men are ranked No. 1 nationally this week, while the women are No. 3.

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