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SUISSE news Winter 2018 / January 2018

Famous Alpine Ski Racers from Canada and Switzerland
Kurt Schl├Ąpfer

As a predominantly mountainous country, Switzerland has traditionally been a strong nation in the sport of alpine skiing and therefore represented with many names in the all-time winners list of alpine skiing. But four men from Canada, known as "the Crazy Canucks", were also at the top of many ranking lists, and they were better known than many higher-ranked skiers from Europe. Both the Swiss and the Canadians reached their peak in the 1980s, although both countries are still well represented among the elite skiers of today. This article is not intended to list every successful ski racer of the two countries. The idea is rather to present some remarkable persons. Incidentally, all persons mentioned here had their successful period in the 1980s or earlier.

Elite competitive skiers can collect titles in three competitions: the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, the World Cup, and the Winter Olympics.

Canada

The start of popularity of skiing in Canada was certainly influenced by Lucile Wheeler in 1958, when she unexpectedly won the World Ski Championship titles in both downhill and giant slalom. These wins inspired the country to send a national team to Europe the following year. Since then, Canadian female skiers have repeatedly won World Cup races and Olympic medals. The most successful Canadian female skier (and more successful than any Canadian men) was Nancy Greene. She dominated the first two Word Cup seasons (1967 and 1968) winning twice the over-all title. Moreover, she won two medals at the Winter Olympic Games 1968 in Grenoble, France.

Successful performances of Canadian male skiers came later. "Jungle Jim" Hunter won the alpine combined Olympic bronze medal in Sapporo, Japan, in 1972 which was a remarkable individual achievement. Then, a new team (Dave Irwin, Dave Murray, Steve Podborski  and Ken  Read) came into prominence. During their careers lasting into the 1980s, they won 14 World Cup races and achieved dozens of top 10 placings. Famous for their daring assaults on icy courses, these men earned the title "Crazy Canucks". In 2006, the four Crazy Canucks received stars on Canada's Walk of Fame. The only other skier on the walk is Canadian skiing legend Nancy Greene.

Name

FIS World Cup
races won

FIS AlpineSki World
Championship
medals won

Olympic Games
medals won

Nancy Greene

14

4

2

Steve Podborsky

8

1

1

Ken Read

5

0

0

The "Crazy Canucks" Ken Read, Dave Irwin and Steve Podborski attend Canada's Walk Of Fame Gala in 2006 (The fourth "Crazy Canuck", Dave Murray died of cancer in 1990.)

Switzerland

Switzerland can pride itself to have organized the world’s first downhill race (1911) and the first modern slalom race (1921). Since 1930 Switzerland also hosts the race with the longest downhill course in the world (Lauberhorn). Its length is of over 2.7 miles, allowing top speeds up to 100 mph. Among the 71 winners of this prestigious race are 27 Swiss and one Canadian (Ken Read). 

A milestone in the Swiss history of winter sports was the second Winter Olympics (1928) in St. Moritz, however, held without alpine skiing events. Alpine skiing made its Olympic debut 20 years later, again in St. Moritz, where Swiss skiers won five of the 12 medals.

The greatest ski racer in Swiss history is Pirmin Zurbriggen. His career lasted 10 years (1981-1990). During that time he won 40 World Cup races, four overall World Cup titles and nine World Championship medals. Zurbriggen was also the first skier to win World Cup races in all five disciplines – a success which was only achieved by a handful of other racers. He is still – even 27 years after he left the World Cup – the most famous skier in Switzerland.

The next two names on the all-time winners list of Swiss ski racers are two female skiers, Vreni Schneider and Erika Hess.

Vreni Schneider, the most successful Swiss female ski racer, is also the third most successful female ski racer ever (after Lindsey Vonn and Annemarie Moser-Pröll). Schneider made her World Cup debut at the age of 20. She won the overall alpine skiing World Cup three times and finished 55 World Cup races as a winner. She won five medals at the Winter Olympics and six medals at the World Championships. During the 1988/89 season she won 14 World Cup races. Nobody had ever achieved this before and this record is still unbeaten.

Erika Hess dominated the field in the 1980s with 31 World Cup victories, five slalom titles and two overall titles. She also won six World Championship gold medals between 1982 and 1987, as well as one Olympic medal. She retired at age 25. 

Name

FIS World Cup
races won

FIS Alpine Ski World
Championship
medals won

Olympic Games
medals won

Pirmin Zurbriggen

40

9

2

Vreni Schneider

55

6

5

Erika Hess

31

6

1


Vreni Schneider and Pirmin Zurbriggen were elected as top athletes on the occasion of a gala evening celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Swiss Ski Association in July 2004.