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Fourth place is final slap of adversity for Parisien THE ALBERTVILLE GAMES


MERIBEL, France -- Five-hundredths of a second.

The number kept staring back at Julie Parisien yesterday. She was kneeling and weeping in the finish area as the scoreboard kept flashing fourth place, kept reminding her of how close she had come to winning a medal, to taking away a little bit of Winter Olympics history at age 20.

Later, she would say that this was just a beginning, that she would be back for more. That her broken left wrist, the one covered by a cast that was taped to a ski pole, didn't hurt now.

It was the number on the scoreboard that gave her pain and grief.

"I kept seeing bronze . . . silver . . . gold, going through my head," she said.

The American received nothing. She finished fourth in the women's slalom in 1 minute, 33.40 seconds.

"Fourth is not a loss," Parisien said. "Just five-hundredths of a second out of a medal. Oh, what a heartbreak."

She was smiling, though. Behind her, as she was making her way through a maze of reporters and fans, they were giving bouquets to the medalists on this last day of women's Alpine racing at the Winter Olympics.

There was Petra Kronberger of Austria, winning her second gold in 1:32.68. The crowd cheered for Kronberger, the Olympic downhill champion, because she is the most approachable racer on a circuit that turns athletes into billboards.

And in second in 1:33.10 was Annelise Coberger of New Zealand, who was as stunned as anyone in telling of how a kid from Christchurch could grow up to win her country's first Winter Games medal.

Third belonged to Blanca Fernandez Ochoa of Spain, a three-time Olympian who came cutting down the steep, 56-gate course in 1:33.35.

But this was supposed to be Parisien's day. Wasn't it?

She had survived a bloody and brutal January. She lost three front teeth after colliding with a recreational skier in Hintertoder, Austria, and then joked about a having to wear a dental bridge "before I was 65." Four days later, she clipped a gate in Piancavallo, Italy, and broke her left wrist.

Without the use of an arm, she couldn't possibly cope with the tight turns that make the World Cup something more than just a series of races. She went home to Auburn, Maine, and was fitted with a cast, and also underwent hours of root-canal surgery.

And then she came back to Europe, back to the Olympics.

"Wouldn't miss them," she said.

But all of these strange things kept happening to her here. She blew out of the start house .16 early in the super-giant slalom and was disqualified. In the giant slalom, she finished fifth, missing a bronze by .39 of a second. She took a sharp slap on the mouth from one of the gates during Wednesday's giant slalom, prompting her to don a full-face mask for the slalom.

And then, yesterday, the gold was within her reach. Her morning run was a lovely vision of bruising power. This fullback on skis bashed breakaway gates with her cast, put together gorgeous turns that left her in front and in command.

She went to her hotel room for a rest. She talked to her brother. She started thinking, thinking of what it would be like to win, to stand and take a gold.

"I couldn't eat," she said. "My stomach was a mess. Butterflies. The night before the race, I thought the worst thing that could happen was that I would be first after the morning run. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. Maybe it killed me."

In the afternoon, she waited by the start house as, one by one, the top-seeded racers made their way down the demanding run. Down at the bottom, the racing experts figured that Switzerland's Vreni Schneider would come charging in and redeem her team's awful, one-medal Winter Games performance. But when Schneider came in slow, there appeared to be a path for Parisien to get a medal, to finish off a superb Games for the American women.

She was ready to join silver medalists Hilary Lindh (downhill) and Diann Roffe (giant slalom) and show the world that the American women were ready to own mountains again. Finally, it was Parisien's turn to ski.

Later, she would remember the sting in her left wrist as she pushed off, the treachery of the turns on the top of the hill and the last, desperate chase to the finish.

"I gave it everything I had," she said. "But it wasn't enough. I gave away the gold medal.

So the skier from Maine will remember these Olympics for all of the pain, for the numbers that don't even add up to a blink of an eye. She raced. She wept. She vowed to come back.

"Ski racers live by hundredths of a second," she said. "When we're eating, we eat like racehorses. When we're walking around town, we walk fast. When we drive, we drive incredibly fast. You learn to live that way, and you learn to appreciate time."

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