Ski legend Alberto Tomba's great regret

Story highlights

  • Alberto Tomba won three Olympic gold medals during his glittering skiing career
  • The Italian legend also claimed two world titles and 50 World Cup wins
  • Tells CNN his one regret was quitting too early in 1998
  • "La Bomba" remains a revered figure in Italy and around the world

He is one of the greatest skiers of all time, the winner of every major prize on offer, but when Alberto Tomba looks back on his legendary career he feels a pang of regret.

"La Bomba" called it quits at the end of the 1998 season, aged 31, having won three Olympic gold medals, two world championship titles and 50 World Cup races.

His final victory in the slalom at the World Cup Finals in Crans Montana of 1998 meant the Italian established a record, as yet unbroken, of being the only male skier to win at least one race per year for 11 straight seasons.

Tomba's farewell appearance in the Winter Olympics in Nagano in 1998 ended in a rare failure but, after watching the next two as a frustrated spectator, he came to the conclusion he had stopped racing prematurely.

"I was watching Salt Lake City 2002, Torino 2006, and after Torino I said, 'Oh, I stopped skiing too early, I was too young, I was 31,' " he told CNN's Alpine Edge series.

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"I may feel in good shape but now I'm 46 and what I can do? It's too late."

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    It is debatable whether Tomba might have added to his victories, but he can reflect on leaving an indelible mark on his sport -- earning the adulation of fans not just in his home country, but the world over.

    His flamboyant style on the slopes was matched by a reputation for fast living off piste, but Tomba insists it was exaggerated.

    "No, no no -- only half is true! All the time they invented it, just for the press ... for fun. To provoke me also!"

    Current World Cup star Didier Cuche also believes Tomba rather cleverly maintained the image, but remained a very serious competitor at heart.

    "I hear that he went to sleep really early, got up at 2 o'clock in the night, went out for an hour and then went to bed again ... he was playing a little bit with that," the Swiss skier told CNN.

    The longevity of Tomba's career is testament to his ability and the hard work he put in, scoring his first World Cup victory in 1987 when he beat his great idol, Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden.

    Two gold medals at the 1988 Calgary Olympics catapulted him to world stardom and he successfully defended his giant slalom crown in the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville.

    1995 was to prove Tomba's best season on the World Cup circuit, winning 11 races and claiming the famous Crystal Globe as overall champion.

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    A combination of circumstances had prevented Tomba from claiming a world championship title, but he put that right in 1996 with double gold.

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    It remains the highlight of a career full of highlights for Tomba, now the patron of an Italian Winter Sports Federation project which targets youngsters who will be looking to follow in his giant footsteps.

    "I think it was in Sierra Nevada, my world championships, I won two gold in two days. It was amazing, also the weather, the climate -- everything was perfect," he recalled.

    Tomba returned home to a rapturous welcome.

    "I remember when I flew back to Italy, everybody expects Alberto at Bologna Airport, but I fly back to Parma because it was full, many people, 20,000 people -- that was amazing."

    Tomba was famous for his daring charges in the deciding second runs of his races, often making up large deficits from the first leg to storm to victory.

    For his second gold in the giant slalom in Sierra Nevada he made up 0.81 seconds on the first-leg leader to top the podium.

    Fellow ski legend Franz Klammer told CNN that was typical of Tomba's style.

    "The way he skied, he was so light even though he was a big guy, he was so light on the skis, smooth and he could pull it off -- even though if the first run was not that great, he could really do it on the second run," the Austrian said.