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    Friday, February 20, 1998

    Compagnoni matches Tomba in medals, not popularity

     SHIGA KOGEN, Japan (AP) -- Deborah Compagnoni now has as many Olympic gold medals as former training partner Alberto Tomba. She doesn't have his popularity -- yet -- and that's just fine with her.
     Compagnoni, taming a course her opponents said was the toughest they had ever faced, won the women's giant slalom by a whopping 1.8 seconds Friday to successfully defend the Olympic title she captured four years ago in Lillehammer.
     The victory made Compagnoni only the third woman with three Alpine golds. Three men, including Tomba, have accomplished that feat.
     Though Compagnoni has become almost as popular as Tomba among ski fans in Italy, she is overshadowed everywhere else by the flamboyant Tomba -- with whom she trained for a few weeks before the 1992 Olympics.
     Compagnoni is the soft-spoken daughter of a hotel owner in an Italian ski resort. Tomba is a brash city kid from Bologna, the son of a wealthy textile merchant.
     "The thing with Alberto is he's a very special personality, he's a character," she said through a translator. "There have been many other champions, but they're not Alberto Tomba."
     Compagnoni, a three-time world champion, has had a bigger share of the limelight in recent years. She made headlines with a nine-race World Cup giant slalom winning streak, and beat out Tomba for the title of Italy's skier of the year in 1997.
     But her brush with fame has not been all fun. Her romance with Alessandro Benetton, heir to the clothing company fortune, has made her the target of Italian paparazzi.
     "I've never really competed with him (Tomba) in order to be more famous than he is," she said.
     Compagnoni always has been linked to Tomba. When she won the super-G at Albertville in 1992, her first Olympic gold medal, it came on the same day Tomba successfully defended his giant slalom title.
     She bristled at that time when asked about Tomba and the training they did together.
     "He didn't teach me everything," she said, "because I knew how to ski before I met him."
     Compagnoni took a lead of nearly a full second on the first run of Friday's giant slalom. She nearly doubled that margin on the second run down an icy and steep course.
     The victory made her the first Alpine skier to win golds in three straight Olympics. It also wiped out a sour taste from the slalom a day earlier, in which she blew a big first-run lead by skiing tentatively on the second run.
     She got only silver in the slalom, losing to Germany's Hilde Gerg by six-hundredths of a second.
     "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.
     Compagnoni has overcome a series of physical problems throughout her career, including operations on both knees, a broken shinbone and an intestinal blockage that required emergency surgery in 1990.
     So, while Tomba trained for the slalom on Saturday (Friday night EST) and tried to shake off his soreness from a tumble in the giant slalom, Compagnoni celebrated her victory.
     "I would dedicate this victory to myself, because I really fought hard for this race, for winning this title," she said. "I would say this gold medal was the one that cost me the most."