Ski Tales: Famed courses will test downhillers

The Winter Olympics in Vancouver are just a few weeks away, and the world will be watching as skiers

The Winter Olympics in Vancouver are just a few weeks away, and the world will be watching as skiers from all over the world scramble for medals.

The best Alpine skiers aren’t waiting until then, however, as two of the most exciting downhill races of the World Cup season are happening in the next eight days.

On Saturday, the men will race the long and challenging Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen, Switzerland. One week later, they will be in Kitzbuehel, Austria, competing in the Hahnenkamm downhill. The two events will be especially important to Lake Placid’s Andrew Weibrecht, a fast-rising star on the USA’s speed team. Last season, the 23-year-old Weibrecht placed 11th in super-G and 24th in downhill at Kitzbuehel.

The Hahnenkamm, by the way, is more than a ski race. It’s an event.

Thousands pack into Kitzbuehel to watch the Hahnenkamm — and to party — and the wild and crazy weekend is a three-day mardi gras on snow. While merriment will surely prevail, there may will be a little sadness in the air this year, at least among some of the old-timers in town.

Kitzbuehel is the birthplace of legendary Alpine skier Toni Sailer, who passed away in August at the age of 73.

Sailer was the star of a powerful 1950s Austrian ski team and, along with American star Buddy Werner, he was one of my first Alpine skiing heroes.

Sailer’s place in history was assured during the 1956 Olympics in Cortina, Italy, where he became the first skier ever to win gold medals in slalom, giant slalom and downhill.

A favorite book in my library is Sailer’s self-titled autobiography, sub-titled, “My Way to the Triple Olympic Victory.”

While browsing through the book recently, I came across Sailer’s account of the 1956 Hahnenkamm downhill.

The race is staged on a course called “The Streif.” It was then, and still is, considered the scariest downhill in the world.

For some reason, the French and Swiss teams elected to skip the Hahnenkamm that year. Sailer thought their coaches didn’t want the Austrians to look too closely at their hand with the Olympics just around the corner.

Entered in the Hahnenkamm with Sailer were fellow Austrians Walter Schuster, Othmar Schneider, Ernstl Hinterseer, Josl Rieder and Anderl Molterer.

Steamboat Springs native Werner, already known as an acrobatic daredevil on skis, was also in the field.

To set the stage, Werner was fourth down the mountain. Sailer wore bib number 23. The rest of the Austrians would ski in between them, and no doubt watch Werner ski the top of the course.

Sailer was impressed by Werner’s start, to say the least.

The racers have to schuss an intimidating section called the “Mausefalle,” or “Mousetrap,” right out of the start house.

In a 2008 New York Times article, writer Paul Hochman aptly described the Mausefalle as “a 250-foot blind jump that is Alpine racing’s version of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.” Hochman pointed out that when racers fly off it, just five seconds into the race, they are already going 65 m.p.h.

In his account of the 1956 race, Sailer wrote, “I had seen how keenly this man from Colorado had jumped into the ‘Mousetrap.’ By God. the guy had guts. I believe that if someone had told Bud Werner the downhill course went down over the rocks and along the funic­ular tressle, he would have started with the same suicidal determin­ation.”

Werner made it to the bottom in one piece and with a very fast time — just a hair over three minutes. The Austrians knew that would be hard to beat.

One by one, Sailer’s teammates failed to better the risk-taking American’s time, so the thousands of Austrian fans waiting at the bottom knew it was up to Toni. And he had to make a choice.

Sailer thought Werner was reckless, but he also knew that “Lady Luck often favors such sharp gamblers . . .”

In his book. he said: “The tempt­ation to ski beyond my abilities, no matter what the cost, was great.”

But a year earlier, Norwegian great Stein Eriksen had advised him, “Never let yourself lose your own way of skiing.”

So Sailer skied it his way, not Werner’s, and he finished 2.7 seconds ahead of the American.

He won the slalom on the following day, as well, so the Hahnenkamm weekend proved to be a preview of Sailer’s gold medal sweep in Cortina.

Sailer also won the Hahnenkamm downhill in 1957, and his teammate, Molterer, won the following year.

But in 1959, Werner finally had his day on the Streif. He became the first non-European to win the prestigious Hahnenkamm, this time with a course-record time of 2:33.4. The Colorado native died in an avalanche in Switzerland shortly after competiting in the 1964 Olympics.

Austrian Franz Klammer is the all-time Hahnenkamm champ, having won the race four times — three straight years starting in 1975, and and once again in 1984. During a 2006 interview on Austrian tel­evision, Klammer was asked what he felt his greatest achievement was. He said although his gold medal in downhill at the 1976 Olympics is generally regarded as his greatest career achievement, his ’84 win at Kitzbuehel meant something very special to him because he hadn’t won there since 1977.


I’ve been going to Section II high school ski races for a number of years, and I’ve always been impressed by the cooperation that exists among the coaches and athletes. At the Nordic sectionals last season, I was surprised to find that the coaches were sharing inform­ation on waxing to assure that all the racers were using the best wax of the day. At Alpine races, I’ve seen coaches help skiers from other squads who might have binding problems or questions about gate combinations on a race course.

This spirit of cooperation apparently goes beyond the section, as evidenced by an open e-mail written by Jon Stern, Section IX Nordic coordinator, to Queensbury High School Nordic coach Bob Underwood.

Section IX is downstate, and the Nordic teams there don’t always have the best snow conditions to train and race on. Last Saturday, Stern brought five schools and 70 skiers from Section IX to compete in the Queensbury Nordic Inv­itational and Glens Falls Empire State Qualifier and Junior Olympic Qualifier. Nearly 600 skiers were in the race, which was held in Crandall Park.

In his e-mail, Stern wrote,

“Accepting us as you have has had a profound effect on our ability to maintain a credible ski program in the sometimes snow-deprived south. We know that short of a snow drought, we have at least one race we can count on skiing . . . in fact, today’s race marked only our second race of the season. We have been fortunate in recent years to have produced a few pretty good skiers, and it is in no small part due to your help and encouragement along the way.”

In the boys’ race, Queensbury was first, followed by Holland Patent and Lake George. Queensbury’s Will Frielinghaus was the individual winner. He was followed by Steve Petramale and Willie Underwood of Lake George.

Queensbury also skied off with the girls’ team title, with New Paltz second and Scotia-Glenville third. The top three girls were Carly Wynn and Danielle Winslow of Queensbury and Gabby Mancuso of New Paltz.


U.S. ski team member Weibrecht has ties to the Capital Region.

Lisa Weibrecht, his mother, was raised in Scotia and graduated from Scotia-Glenville High School in 1975. Her father, Hal Clune, was a standout Scotia High School football player (center and kicker) in the late 1940s. He later founded Clune Electric in Ballston Spa.

Lisa Clune moved to Lake Placid in 1976, and became one of the first women in this country to take up luge racing. In a recent telephone conversation from Whiteface Mountain where she was skiing, she said, “We used to slide on the old bobsled run. I also did bobsledding, and I had my half-mile license for that.”

As a luge racer she competed in this country and in Europe, winning the U.S. National luge title in 1978.

Lisa and her husband, Ed, are owners of the Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid.


Sharon Caggianelli Vinsick of Clifton Park won two races Saturday in a New York State Masters competition at Swain Mountain.

Vinsick was first in her class (45-49) in both slalom and giant slalom. She was the overall winner in slalom, and placed second overall in giant slalom.

Vinsick’s daughter, Megan Caggianelli, was second in her class and third overall in slalom, and third in her class and fourth overall in giant slalom.

Megan, a former Shenendehowa racer, is a member of the Alfred University ski team.

Categories: Sports

Leave a Reply