Former Olympian remembers gold medal run 50 years laterby Kelsey Dayton
— March 4, 2014
There are many things Pepi Stiegler doesn’t remember.
At 76 years old, he doesn’t remember the first time he put on skis, just that skiing was a way of life in his town of Lienz, Austria. It’s how he got to school.
He doesn’t remember if he won races as a kid, just that they raced all the time – to school, after school and in sanctioned events on the weekends. At some point he realized he was better than most of the skiers in his town.
He doesn’t even remember how he placed in the slalom in his first Olympics in 1960. It might have been fifth, which doesn’t count for much. Or it might have been fourth. “Nobody ever remembers if you were fourth either,” he said.
But there are some things he doesn’t forget. Like how at the 1960 Olympics, where he won a silver medal in the giant slalom, the French were far more technologically advanced compared to the other teams and they took gold and bronze in the downhill. Or how after his teammate Agon Zimmerman won the gold in the downhill at the 1964 Olympics, Stiegler almost lost his spot in slalom because coaches thought Zimmerman should get one of the limited spots to represent Austria. He remembers the anxiety of thinking he might not race in the event in which he was favored. His hometown protested, demonstrating in the streets in support, until Stiegler’s name was announced to compete.
“When I was in the starting gate of the slalom, I felt I had an obligation to demonstrate that my people were right in their rebellion,” he said. “And I did that.”
Stiegler said it was as though he took flight. “I put on wings for that first round. I went through there on wings. Bingo. Bingo. Bingo.”
He finished a second ahead of the next skier. His second run was more conservative, he didn’t want to lose his advantage by making a mistake, but it was still strong enough for a gold medal. He was so grateful to the support of his town, he let them keep the medal to display.
“How do you say no to the mayor who led the protest to let you compete?” he said.
He won a bronze that year too, in the giant slalom and then he left racing, feeling he’d peaked.
He took a job at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, his gold medal giving him enough cachet to help start a ski school for which he’d serve as director for 29 years. He raised his family in Jackson and, without any prodding, his son Seppi and daughter Resi both became ski racers.
Every Olympics Stiegler remembers. But this year, the 50th anniversary of the games when he won the gold medal, which “changed his life,” his focus wasn’t so much on the memories, but on his daughter, Resi Stiegler who competed in her second Olympics games. (She also raced in Italy in 2006).
It’s hard not to immediately compare the Olympics his daughter raced in, to the ones in which he competed.
The Olympics is much more of a spectacle that when Pepi Stiegler raced. It’s much more intense, he said. In part because of the number of athletes. When Stiegler raced, he knew all of his opponents, and there were only about four who were contenders for the gold. Today, while there are people favored to medal, there are still a dozen others who could potentially make the podium, he said. They are all professionals. The racers differ by fractions of seconds.
The sport is so different today that Stiegler doesn’t give his children advice. He had no parting words for his daughter before she left for the Olympics. He knows she’s an expert skier and “podium material.” And he knew, due to the time delay in broadcasting the events, before he even settled into his chair to watch and cheer for her, that this year she would not medal.
He also knew that watching her compete was something he’d never forget.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton
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