One winter day three ski seasons ago, Franco Magoni, a crusty little man with bushy gray hair and eyebrows, installed a press in the Milan headquarters of Italy's major sports daily, La Gazzetta dello Sport. When the job was done, Magoni, still in his grimy work clothes, planted himself before the desk of La Gazzetta writer Gianni Merlo and barked in the dialect of the mountains of Northern Italy, "Why do you never write about my daughter Paola?" Mind you, at the time Paola was a young skier on the Italian national team who finished way back in World Cup races, but in her proud father's eyes that should not have prevented Merlo from giving Paola some ink.
Two years after this encounter, there was a lot to write about Franco's daughter. On Feb. 17, 1984 Paola stunned the ski world by winning the Olympic slalom. At only 19, she was the first Italian woman ever to win an Olympic gold medal in Alpine racing and the first woman to bring home a medal of any color from a Winter Olympiad since '76. Before Sarajevo her best World Cup slalom finish had been a sixth in '84 at Limone Piemonte, Italy. She was lucky just to be on the Italian Olympic team.
But in the dense fog of Sarajevo's Jahorina Mountain, Paola proved to be a 5'1", 115-pound package of dynamite—something that Franco had suspected all along. It was he who had started her on her way to the medaglia d'oro when in 1975 he founded the Ski Team Magoni, a racing group consisting of Paola and three of her brothers and sisters.
The Magonis' home village of Selvino (pop. about 2,000) is an hour's drive from Milan, along the autostrada past Bergamo and then up a serpentine road. It's a tidy, prosperous-looking place where affluent Milanese keep weekend homes. Franco, 42, a handyman, ski fanatic and local gadfly, and his wife, Margherita, have raised their children here: Livio, 21; Paola; Oscar, 17; Sonia, 18; and Francesca-Pr√∂ll, who is seven. Franco had wanted to name his youngest daughter Moser-Pr√∂ll, after Annemarie Moser-Pr√∂ll, Austria's downhill queen of the '70s and early '80s, but the priest who officiated at the child's baptism objected.
February 4, 1985
For Franco skiing was never a pastime. After teaching his children the rudiments, he planted poles down a slope to make a slalom course for them. Soon the Magonis were spending every winter weekend training or racing. Franco drove his children to meets in an ancient Ford bus with SKI TEAM MAGONI on the front; during races he would zip up and down the course on his black snowmobile, screaming instructions.
Livio never made the Italian team, but he is a good enough skier to have become a coach of Monaco's one-man 1984 Olympic team. Oscar joined the army ski team. Sonia made the national B team. But Paola was the one with the most talent. For her, Franco sacrificed the most.
"Paola was different from her brothers and sisters," says Margherita. "When she wanted something, she had to have it. When she began to race, and she was only seven then, she always had to be first. Her father saw that she could be the best in Italy, and he did everything for her to be someone special someday."
"Did I push her?" Franco repeats a question he's often asked. "Damn well I did! I didn't push her with my hands'. I pushed her with a car!"
Franco bought the finest equipment; he hired experienced coaches. Whenever a coach wasn't strict enough with Paola, Franco would fire him and look for a new one. He sold the Magonis' three-story house and moved them into a much smaller home, an old, steeply gabled house out of a Grimm brothers fairy tale, to get money for Paola's development. He transformed one basement room into a ski shop and another into a trophy room—now filled with 10 years' worth of cups, bowls, medals and ribbons.
"The people of Selvino call me Crazy-man," says Franco. "They said, 'Why don't you use your money to build a new house, to buy a new car?' "
Paola made the national development team at 12 and the B team at 14. She won the Europa Cup in the giant slalom the following year. But when she joined the Italian A team and the World Cup circuit five years ago, she found herself hopelessly outclassed. Around the time when Franco barged in on Merlo, Paola was ready to call it quits. "My father talked me into staying on," she says. "He said, 'You cannot be the best yet. You are only 17 years old. If you have patience, you'll do well.' My father is always right."
Before he left for Sarajevo and the Olympics, Franco built a caldron in his front yard and lit his very own Olympic flame. Next to it he erected a metal stand with the Olympic rings mounted on top. He had to borrow $ 1,000 from his mother to make the trip to Yugoslavia.
The night before the Olympic slalom, Paola dreamed about winning. She envisioned herself whipping around the slalom poles. "I could feel I was going very fast," she says, "and there was nobody else, no competitors, no one to beat. After I had crossed the finish in my dream, I turned and saw that I had the best time on the electronic timing board."
The next day, after the first run, she was tied for fourth with France's Perrine Pelen. "Very good," said Franco at the finish. "Fourth place is very good." But Paola wanted better. It would be difficult because in the second run she was to be the first out of the starting gate.
She covered the course in 47.62 seconds—and then had to wait 10 agonizing minutes before she could be certain that her combined time of 1:36.47 would hold. After the last of Paola's challengers had come down, Pelen was in second place, .90 behind. Paola buried her face in her ski gloves and cried. Franco cried, too.
Paola's return to Italy prompted a reception almost as tumultuous as the one given the Italian soccer team that brought home the World Cup in 1982. Her fans almost overran Milan's Linate Airport, where she had to submit to the obligatory interview for TV:
"You were very good!"
"Will the gold medal change your life?"
"Was there anybody among your competitors you were afraid of?"
"You are so, ah, cool. As a competitor, are you that cool, too?"
But she wasn't that cool. Every now and then she dabbed at the tears in her eyes.
Last Christmas Paola married her boyfriend of four years, Luca Sforza, 22, a glazier. Sforza, who can barely ski, has learned to live with a racer. "The important thing is to stay out of her way and to shut up when she loses," he says. (Paola's husband has been able to chatter away lately; she won her first World Cup race ever on Jan. 14.)
The gold medal has not brought Paola riches. The Italian ski federation gave her 20 million lire ($10,450), but a quarter of that went for taxes. With much of the rest she bought furniture for the new two-bedroom apartment she and Luca rented across the street from her parents' house.
Asked how the gold medal changed his life, Franco says, "For the worse, not the better. Now when I'm looking for work, I'm told, 'What do you need work for? Doesn't the federation give you money?' When I saw what the federation gave Paola, I told them, 'We don't need pocket money.' I'm no longer interested. Paola can do what she wants now. The federation can keep their——money."
It's only a couple of mountain ranges from Selvino to Bormio, Italy, where the Alpine world championships will begin on the last day of January. On Feb. 9, the day of the women's slalom, the course will be lined with fans from Selvino shouting the diminutive "Pa-o-let-ta! Pa-o-let-ta!" Paola plans to keep her cool.
"Pressure?" she says. "I won't feel any pressure. When I race, I concentrate very hard. There may be a mountain full of people shouting my name. I won't even hear them."
Franco will be there. He may not be shouting, but Paola will hear Franco.