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Legacy: The Natural

Legacy: The Natural

Toni Sailer raced to seven World Championship medals in an improbable 24 months—a record that still stands.
By John Fry
posted: 08/26/2009

The dashing Toni Sailer among young fans at the 1956 Winter Olympics. Four years later, the hard-shell helmet replaced padded headgear in downhill racing.

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—that is, 50 years ago this month. In the 1958 World Alpine 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, an Olympic gold medalist also received a World Championship gold medal. So Sailer’s three 1958 gold medals, on top of his Olympic four and a 1956 victory in the 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, 72, still lives near his hometown of Kitzbühel, where his proudest achievement is the children’s ski school he developed. He has long served as chairman of the International Ski Federation’s Alpine Committee, making rules for the sport he once ruled as a competitor.

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