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Skiing History (USPS No. 16-201, ISSN: 23293659) is published bimonthly by the International Skiing History Association, P.O. Box 1064, Manchester Center, VT 05255.
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Classics: The Natural
Toni Sailer raced to seven World Championship medals in an improbable 24 months—helping him become skiing’s first leading man.
Above: The Blitz from Kitz: Combining three gold medals with his matinee-idol appearance, 21-year-old Toni Sailer was the breakout star at the 1956 Cortina Winter Olympic Games.
The ski world conventionally remembers Austria’s Toni Sailer as the first racer to capture three gold medals in a single Olympics, winning all the alpine competitions (slalom, giant slalom and downhill) at the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina, Italy. After Jean-Claude Killy hat-tricked again in 1968, no man has three-peated. But to appreciate Sailer’s dominance, you have to know what he did two years after the Olympics. In the 1958 Alpine World Ski Championships at Bad Gastein, Austria, he was in a class by himself. He won the giant slalom—in which victory is often decided by hundredths of a second—by four seconds, and he won the downhill as well. And he was second in the slalom, narrowly missing gold. The result was that he easily won the overall FIS World Championship combined gold medal.
At the time, Olympic medalists also received World Championship medals (the practice ended in 1980). So Sailer’s three 1958 gold medals, on top of his Olympic four (including the 1956 victory in the “paper” combined event), gave him seven World Championship gold medals in two years—a feat no other racer has achieved. To top it off, during the same 24 months he won the world’s toughest downhill, the Hahnenkamm. Twice.
How could a racer be so dominant? Going fast is one way to win. Its complement is to travel the shortest distance. Sailer was ahead of his time in perfecting the technique of taking a straight line between gates, using an uphill step to enter turns normally. American Tom Corcoran says watching Sailer’s line in 1958 was a lesson that he never forgot—and one that helped him become America’s top giant slalom skier.
Sailer also had a mental edge. His desire to win was so deeply embedded, he explained, that the goal of coming in first didn’t cross his mind. Rather, he likened his skiing to throwing a stone. “The stone flies by itself, and it lands by itself,” said Sailer. “I get the prize because the stone flew well. Why did it fly well? Because I threw it the right way.”
The 1958 World Championships were Sailer’s final races. Strict Olympic guidelines on amateur status forced him to retire. “I have to make money,” said the 23-year-old, by then Europe’s most famous athlete. And he did. Built like a football player and Hollywood handsome, he became a successful movie and TV actor, and a heartthrob to millions of women.
Sailer long served as chairman of the International Ski Federation’s Alpine Committee, making rules for the sport he once ruled as a competitor. One of his life’s proudest achievements was establishing the children’s ski school in his hometown of Kitzbühel.
Post-script: Sailer died in 2009, in Innsbruck, Austria. He was 73. With his remarkable competitive success, along with his post-racing career in film and entertainment, skiing’s first leading man was nothing short of a national hero. Heinz Fischer, president of Austria, paid tribute to Sailer as “a top athlete who already became a legend during his lifetime.”
Excerpted from the February 2008 issue of SKI Magazine. John Fry (1930-2020) was editorial director of SKI and Snow Country magazines, and longtime president, then chairman, of ISHA. He authored the award-winning book The Story of Modern Skiing. His final book, published posthumously, is Abandon Foolish Scheme: Deathly encounters that you won’t find in bestsellers about dying.
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