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Bucky Gleason: Former WNY Olympian shows there's more to life than winning gold

With two Olympic medals in her pocket and a world championship to her name, Diann Roffe knew it was time to walk away from competitive alpine skiing after the 1994 Winter Games in Norway. She had won gold in the women's Super G and wanted to leave the sport on top.

It was a logical reason for retiring that carried enough truth to pacify the curious without fully explaining why she disappeared from the world stage. In fact, she was burned out from the travel and the training, exhausted from the routine that came with a singular goal of being the best and simply tired of being her.

At age 26, she packed up her skis, returned to the United States and since has lived a normal life in relative obscurity. She and her second husband have a 14-year-old son, Tripp. She works two jobs that allow her to keep a hand in skiing while still making appearances and serving as a public speaker.

And she's happy.

"When you're an athlete, your life is completely – for lack of a better word – narcissistic," Roffe said. "You are devoted by necessity to waking up in the morning, taking your resting heart rate, looking at your training schedule for the day. Everything from what you eat to how you feel is directly related to your success."

Roffe, who was born in Warsaw and raised in the Rochester suburb of Williamson, skied for fun while speeding down modest hills at Brantling Ski Center. She burst onto the international scene in 1985, her senior year of high school, when she won gold in the giant slalom in the world championships in France.

Seven years later, after suffering two season-ending knee injuries, she won a silver medal in giant slalom in the Albertville Olympics. Two years later, she stood atop the podium in Norway and reached the pinnacle while handing the Americans their first gold of the '94 Winter Games. All along, she knew there was more to life.

"I could walk away from the sport ranked No. 1 in the world," she said. "I didn't injure out or get cut off the team. I didn't run out of money. I made it on my terms. It was time to live my life a little bit differently. That's the minority. There are very, very few athletes that have been able to achieve a little bit of success and move on."

Diann Roffe has done television skiing commentary in recent years, including here in Vail in 2015. (Courtesy Diann Roffe)

To be sure, too many athletes spend so much time, energy and money working toward a goal that they're not quite sure how to function in the real world after reaching the top of their sport or, worse, falling short. Olympic champions often believe financial security awaits them, as if a line of companies needs them.

It’s true for only a small percentage, especially in sports that draw national interest once every four years. Athletes who become household names during the Games are quickly forgotten afterward. Roffe knew the fantasy she lived was temporary, which helped make for a smooth transition out of competitive skiing.

"The underlying realization for most Olympians is they that don't make it big money-wise," she said. "I would say 90 percent of Olympians don't make $1 million. There are a few that the media props up as superstars, and decides that they like, that go on to have some residual endorsements. Honestly, it dries up pretty quickly."

Plus, athletes have a difficult time replacing the adrenaline that comes with competing in the Olympics. Many over the years have had a hard time describing the euphoria that comes with the Games, like speechless Stanley Cup winners you see on TV. But their success is fleeting and, before long, people stop paying attention to them.

Western New Yorkers who have competed in the Winter Olympics

The adjustment also can be difficult for those around them. The people who support them most also can become intoxicated by the chase for success. They make sacrifices in their lives and work around schedules. They’re often busy working behind the scenes, working with sponsors and managing travel.

All that for one shot at gold.

Suddenly, it's over.

Roffe's first marriage fell apart shortly after the cheering stopped, in part because her husband had a more difficult time adjusting to her life without skiing than she did. She said she stopped getting the support as a wife that she had as an athlete, caused in part by her ex-husband's  post-Olympic hangover and shift in priorities.

"Life," she said, "wasn't as exciting (to him) after everything was done."

Roffe, 50, moved to Pennsylvania shortly after she returned from Norway. She has been living a normal life in Camp Hill, Pa., just outside Harrisburg. She stays involved with the sport as director of skiing at Ski Roundtop, overseeing more than 100 youth skiers and 20 coaches, while working as a paralegal for a defense attorney.

Diann Roffe during her silver medal performance in the women's giants slalom at the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics. (Allsport/Getty Images)

She met her future husband, Arthur Pursel, while working as a ski instructor and has been married for 15 years. Her primary focus these days is her family and raising their son, who also has embraced ski racing. She credited her parents for keeping her priorities in order and instilling the fact there was life beyond skiing.

For years, she has lived in peace.

Four years ago, she worked as an ambassador for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team, showing people around Sochi, Russia. Last year, she was an in-stadium commentator for the world championships. She was asked to perform similar duties during the alpine events this year in Pyeongchang but respectfully declined.

Traveling to South Korea and living in a dorm for three weeks, while making less money than she would at home, wasn't appealing even though she was a former Olympian. Anyway, being away would have been too disruptive for her husband, son and co-workers from her two jobs.

For once, the Olympics weren't about her.

They were about everyone else.


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