U.S. long shot has saintly skis
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
BY STEVE POLITI
TURIN, Italy -- Rebecca Dussault is praying for a miracle.
She needs one to medal here in cross-country skiing, an overlooked sport in America where her times are no match for the stronger competitors. But she does not want gold, silver or bronze for personal acclaim.
Dussault believes winning in the Winter Olympics would be the first of two miracles needed toward sainthood for her spiritual inspiration, a man who died helping the poor in Turin more than 80 years ago.
She sees the words "Blessed Frassati" each time she looks down at her skis during competition, and believes his spirit is helping her through these Olympics -- so she, in turn, can help him.
"It's like Pier Giorgio Frassati is helping me with my journey," the 24-year-old Colorado resident said yesterday, "and I'm helping Frassati by getting his story out there and telling people about his great life."
Olympians find motivation everywhere, and while the reward is often money and glory and magazine covers, there are notable exceptions.
Joey Cheek donated the $25,000 he earned for winning a gold medal in speedskating last night to "Right to Play," a group that uses sports to help children in the most disadvantaged areas of the world.
Chanda Gunn, a goaltender for Team USA who has battled epilepsy all her life, believes winning a gold medal will show children with the disease that they can participate in sports.
Chris Witty, a short-track speedskater, proudly carried the Olympic flag during the Parade of Nations on Friday night, knowing she would create more awareness for child abuse issues in the process.
Dussault's story has not been as widely told. She learned about Frassati during a retreat in Colorado, and the more she heard about the man, the more she saw in common with him.
"I just saw a lot of parallels between his life and my own," she said. "He died at 24. I'm 24. He loved the mountains. That's all I do -- play in the mountains and compete in the mountains. Those are the things that attracted me to him. Plus, he was a cross-country skier."
She traveled to Turin last summer and visited the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista, a popular destination for another reason: The Shroud of Turin is kept here in a gilded box.
Other tourists looked at a copy of the controversial religious icon while Dussault kneeled before a crypt and stared up at a black-and-white photograph of a handsome young man, praying for him to give her strength.
She is not the first to find inspiration in Frassati, who used his inherited wealth to help the sick and needy in Turin and the surrounding mountains before contracting polio and dying on July 4, 1925. More than 10,000 people filled the streets to follow his funeral procession.
"He was a rich man from a well-known family, but in his short life, he went to live with the poor people," said Alice Agrillo, who helped set up a display celebrating his life during the Games in an old convent near downtown. She said the exhibit was created so "visitors will know his story."
Dussault shares that mission with her skiing. The more she tells her story, the more e-mails she receives from fans across the world to her Web site, DussaultSkis.com. She heard yesterday that Pope Benedict XVI is even sending a gift. "It is incredible that the pope would even know about me," she said.
The ski community knew of her talents as a teenager, when she was one of the rising American stars in her sport. She quit, however, when she tired of what she called the "secular life" just before the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. She wanted to settle down and start a family, and didn't know how skiing fit into her life.
"But then I decided, 'I can do this my way,'" she said, and that meant her husband, Sharbel, and son, Tabor, would accompany her wherever she traveled to compete. They have not missed a race in three years -- including the Olympics, where they hiked through the Alps with her yesterday on an off-day.
After placing 48th out of 67 skiers in Sunday's 15-kilometer race, Dussault resumes competition on Thursday. She has three events remaining, including her best, the 30-kilometer race, on Feb. 24. But she will be a huge underdog even in that event. Cross-country skiing is the sport that the United States Olympic Committee has forgotten, with its athletes living off the leftovers of Bode and the boys from the sexier downhill team.
"The whole thing has been amazing," she said. "I simply chose Frassati as my patron saint. People picked up on it and said, 'Hey, this is pretty cool.'
"If I win a medal here, it's definitely a miracle for Pier Giorgio Frassati," she said. "But the gold medal has already been won in many respects in getting Pier's story out there."
© 2006 The Star Ledger
© 2006 NJ.com All Rights Reserved.
Click on any one of the links below to read the article.