Media Review: Sven Coomer's round-the-world education

Sea to Ski: Coomer

Sven Coomer’s influence on the design of the modern Alpine ski boot is so pervasive that hardly a boot made today doesn’t bear his fingerprints. Today’s models follow two architectures: the two-piece, overlap shell and the three-piece, external tongue design. Coomer was largely responsible for both, and his influence doesn’t stop there.

As recounted in the final chapters of his memoir, Coomer never rested on these considerable laurels. Because he began his career when ski boots were handcrafted in leather, he never lost focus on how the inner boot should function. His search for a more accurately fitting one led him to create a silicone-injection system that followed the foot’s natural contours without distorting the shell or crushing the foot, as previous foam-injection methods often did.

Yet Coomer’s most important legacy may be a component now regarded as essential for performance skiing: the custom insole. He not only co-founded Superfeet, the seminal supplier in this domain, but also co-created a ski shop, Footloose Sports, in Mammoth Lakes, California, as a laboratory for working with elite skiers to perfect his designs. The methodology he developed of casting the unweighted insole is still in use today, as are variations on the cork material he selected as the moldable medium. His most recent original creation, the Zipfit liner, uses cork particles suspended in vegetable oil to conform to every contour of the skier’s foot.

Coomer abbreviates his career here. The book omits as many highlights as it celebrates. The first three-piece shell receives less than two sentences, as if it were an evolutionary dead-end instead of the inspiration for an entire class of boots very much alive today. There’s not a hint of his consulting work with Atomic, which led to the vented sidewalls of the first generation of Hawx boots, designed to transmit the skier’s flexing motion more directly to the ball of the foot. Coomer also masterminded the Munari M-1, the only boot to integrate an internal cable (à la Salomon’s SX series of rear-entries) inside an overlap, four-buckle shell.

Also absent from these pages is another product of Coomer’s creation, the heated boot bag. Ivan Petkov, the Bulgarian ex-racer who invented one of the earliest deep-sidecut carving skis, is often credited with the invention, because he was the first to bring Coomer’s concept to market. Did Petkov purloin the design or did Coomer simply let him have it? You won’t find the answer here.

What you will find is an abundance of sharply etched details about Coomer’s youth in Australia, his father’s home country, and in his mother’s native Sweden. “An Athlete’s Adventures” aptly encapsulates the book’s first nine chapters; Coomer attained world-class proficiency in every sport he tried. At 16, he competed in modern pentathlon at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games and might have medaled had his horse not galloped straight into a tree during the cross-country ride. He remounted and finished the course but was hospitalized. Breaking out of the hospital, Coomer made it back to his bunk in the dark of night and competed in the remaining four events. His combination of preternatural talent and bulletproof determination served him well in the multi-faceted career that lay ahead.

The ease with which Coomer befriended just about every important racer, coach and ski industry maven speaks to a world that felt smaller, more intimate and accessible to anyone with his drive and imagination. His outsized athleticism drew the attention of British officers who invited him to train with other Commonwealth athletes. In due course, Coomer realized he was being trained for a special operation planned by MI6, the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service. He joined a team that parachuted into Chinese-occupied Tibet to prepare the covert extraction of the Dalai Lama, an episode so shrouded in secrecy that its brief mention in Sea to Ski is the first time Coomer has shared any details publicly.

This is typical of the casual way Coomer, recently inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, lights on the truly remarkable facets of his life. For example, hired by Nordica to help the brand transition from leather to plastic boots, Coomer compiled “a list of 173 functional design criteria” that would become the Sapporo boot, a leather prototype for the first all-plastic boot. That’s the sort of attention to detail and willingness to self-impose almost impossible standards that are hallmarks of the man’s mind-boggling career.

There’s a word for someone of Sven Coomer’s amazing inventiveness: genius. He’s a rara avis for whom all skiers should murmur a few words of gratitude as they don their boots. 

Sea to Ski: An Athlete’s Adventures and the Dawn of the Modern Ski Boot, by Sven Coomer. Aspen, 2023. 100 pages. From Amazon, $15 paperback, $9.95 Kindle edition.