Austria's Sportsman of the 20th Century and His Role in the Development of North American Skiing
By Ian Scully
Austrian ski legend Toni Sailer passed away this year in Innsbruck at the age of 73. Sailer was the first skier to win gold medals in all three alpine skiing events, the downhill, slalom, and giant slalom at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. Austrian President Heinz Fischer paid tribute to Sailer as a “top athlete who had already became a legend during his lifetime.” He is considered to be among the best the sport of skiing has ever produced.
Anton "Toni" Engelbert Sailer was born on November 17, 1935 in Kitzbühel, Austria. As the son of a glass shop owner, he learned the trade and became a licensed glazier and plumber and worked in and for his father's shop full-time except in the winters, when he trained four hours a day. Sailer, who reportedly strapped on skis for the first time at age two, had his first skiing victory when he was 11. During his career as a ski racer Toni Sailer won some 170 races. Sailer was said to have incredible coordination and the moves of a cat, and because of those attributes and his great speed he became known as "Schwarzer Blitz von Kitz"... the black lightning bolt from Kitz. His greatest successes were at the 1956 Winter Olympics Games in Cortina, Italy, amd the World Championships in Bad Gastein, Austria in 1958. He subsequently became Austria's most famous skier. Toni Sailer's success story closely parallels that of post-war Austria, which through hard work and determination rose from hardship to achieve and experience economic, political and social success. The acclaimed Austrian ski and sports historian Rudolf Muellner notes that Toni Sailer embodied and helped uplift, shape and solidify Austria's emerging and fragile post-war national identity. Toni Sailer made Austrians proud to be Austrians again. At the 1956 Olympics in Cortina, Italy he showed the world that an athlete from a humble Austrian background could be a champion on the world stage by winning all Alpine Olympic events at the Olympics, a feat never accomplished before or ever since. Shortly thereafter, that same year, he won the Hahnenkamm downhill, slalom and combined event in front of his hometown crowd. Two years later, in 1958, at the World Championships in Bad Gastein, he won gold medals in giant slalom, downhill and combined skiing, as well as a silver medal in slalom. These truly impressive accomplishments, including a very successful season in 1957 during which he again won the Hahnenkamm downhill skiing, won him recognition as Austria's sports personality of the year three years in a row (1956-58).
Although Toni Sailer was one of the youngest of Austria's 'Wonder Team' at the 1956 Olympics, which consisted of many other notable Kitzbühelers, i.e. Anderl Molterer (now residing in the the U.S.), Fritz Huber, Ernst Hinterseer, Hias Leitner and Christian Pravda, he clearly stood out. Toni Sailer's trademark was a white cap, and former Austrian National Ski Team Coach Werner Woerndle who witnessed Toni Sailer's feats as a child recalls, "everybody wore this white cap and was very proud of the Wonder Team and tried to ski slalom and giant slalom."
At the age of 23 Toni Sailer retired from active ski racing to capitalize on his star appeal; and, much like Elvis Presley, someone he is often compared to in terms of looks and style, went on to act in some twenty-five films and, as a singer, recorded some eighteen records. In 1959 he also opened a Bed & Breakfast in Kitzbühel. Between 1972 and 1976 he served as chief trainer and technical director of the Austrian Skiing Association (ÖSV) and thereafter ran a children's ski school in Kitzbühel. Additionally, he started his own sports fashion line.
What is less known about Toni Sailer are his time and achievements in North America. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he occasionally visited and raced in celebrity events at some of the United States' premier areas, such as Aspen, Colorado, Sun Valley, Idaho, and The Sugar Bowl in California.
During the mid-1960s he not only endorsed the Canadian-made Toni Sailer fiberglass ski, but was also actively engaged in marketing and selling it throughout North America. More significantly, between 1967 and 1982, he spent part of each summer in British Columbia, Canada, where he and his friend Nancy Greene, the famous Canadian racer, managed summer racing camps on Whistler Mountain. That summer racing camp provided a get away from the celebrity life in Europe. In 1976 he and Gaby Rummeny, a former German golf champion, were married in Vancouver without fans, reporters or photographers in sight. As he was quoted in a Sports Illustrated article of the time, "It was the only place I cared about where we could have privacy," he said. "When I first came here [Whistler]," said Sailer, "there were bears walking around on the road. There was only a gravel road. Here life is quiet and organized, a break from my usual pace. I can enjoy skiing at a different level, coaching kids, and I can play golf or go sailing or fishing."
For his contribution to the Olympic Movement, the International Olympic Committee awarded Anton "Toni" Sailer the Olympic Order in 1985. In 2006 he announced his retirement as head of the prestigious Hahnenkamm Race, a position he had occupied for twenty years. And in 1999 he was honored and named "Austria's Sportsman of the 20th Century.