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    Friday, February 20, 1998

    Compagnoni makes alpine history

     SHIGA KOGEN, Japan (AP) -- Not this time. Not in her favorite race.
     A day after blowing a big first-run lead and getting only silver in the slalom, Italy's Deborah Compagnoni threaded her way down an icy giant slalom course to become the first alpine skier to win gold medals in three Olympics.
     She also joined Vreni Schneider and Katja Seizinger, who won bronze in the giant slalom for her third medal in five days, as the only women with three Alpine golds.
     Compagnoni took a lead of nearly a full second into the second run Thursday night and expanded that to 1.8 seconds on a course that other skiers complained was the toughest they'd ever encountered.
     "Between the two runs, I thought of yesterday, when I had a huge margin after the first run and then I lost gold," Compagnoni said. "But this time it was giant slalom, my favorite race, and I had an even bigger lead."
     Compagnoni finished with a two-run time of two minutes 50.59 seconds to successfully defend the title she won in Lillehammer. She also won a gold medal in the super-G in 1992 at the Albertville Games.
     Alexandra Meissnitzer of Austria won the silver medal in 2:52.39 and Germany's Seizinger was third in 2:52.61.
     "Deborah, she is better than the rest of the world," Meissnitzer said. "It was the most difficult course and hill I've ever skied on. It was a really demanding race."
     Seizinger won gold medals in the downhill and combined earlier this week. Meissnitzer was a bronze medallist in the super-G last week.
     A mixture of rain and snow fell during both runs. The second run was moved up 45 minutes because of the deteriorating weather.
     "The course is very difficult and now with the rain it's impossible," said Herwig Demschar, the U.S. women's coach. "The only woman who can ski this course is Compagnoni."
     Seizinger's bronze gave Germany six of the 15 medals in the women's alpine events at Nagano. The Austrians have been even more dominant in the men's races, taking seven of the 12 medals so far, with the slalom remaining tonight.
     "Now I'm really happy that everything is over," Seizinger said. "We're looking forward to going home. We had a really great Olympics. I think it will take a couple of weeks to realize what we've done."
     Compagnoni, who has overcome a series of physical problems throughout her career that include surgery on both knees, a broken shinbone and intestinal surgery, finished the first run with a lead of .94 seconds over France's Sophie Lefranc.
     Compagnoni also held a big lead after the first run of the slalom a day earlier, only to lose the gold to Germany's Hilde Gerg by six-hundredths of a second.
     But Compagnoni's specialty is the giant slalom, in which she is two-time defending world champion. It's the event in which she won nine straight World Cup races, a streak that ended just last month.
     "It's a very difficult and technical course, the kind of course I like most," Compagnoni said of the Olympic giant slalom. "It's a course where you must use your brains in addition to your legs."
     A small band of Italian fans chanted "Deb-Deb-Deborah" at the finish line. After wrapping up her victory and seeing her time, Compagnoni turned to the crowd and raised her arms in triumph.
     "This gold is very important to me because it came after yesterday's silver medal, which was a great achievement but disappointing to me because I came so close to the gold," she said.