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Interview: Ingemar Stenmark
Elan Were Simply the Best
08.02.2008 By Simon Demyar
During the 1980’s, while the country was in the grips of ‘ski mania’ , Ingemar Stenmark’s exploits seemed almost surreal. Although Bojan Kri?aj’s main rival, he was probably the second most popular man in Slovenia, largely because he skied on ‘communist’ Elan skis when all the other top skiers were using western products. Despite lucrative financial enticements from other manufacturers, he remained loyal to the skis that helped him to the top, which earned him the legendary status that still exists today. “Elan skis were simply better than all the others,” the 52-year-old Swede commented during his most recent stay in Kranjska Gora. This time he was here on a two-day promotional visit in the company of the winners of an international ‘Skiing with Stenmark’ contest, where winners had a chance to spend a day with the great champion.
Do you receive the same attention wherever you appear?
No. People under 30 years of age don’t recognize me, even in Sweden, unless their parents tell them about me. Besides, skiing is behind football and ice-hockey in terms of popularity in Sweden and Swedish people tend to forget former stars very quickly. In other countries, people recognize me… in Austria, Italy and Slovenia, of course, where the situation is special because many people remember that I skied on Elan skis. It was also when Bojan Kri?aj was racing and skiing in general was very popular in Slovenia.
Did each of your 86 World Cup victories give you the same degree of satisfaction?
No, wins were more important at the beginning because nobody expected me to win. After two years, everybody expected wins; not just wins but wins by at least half a second.
You were on the top for nearly 15 years. Would it be possible today?
First, it is difficult stay away from injuries. Otherwise, I think it is easier to stay on top nowadays because skiing is more physical. You don’t rely so much on feeling, while in my days you lost that feeling when you got tired.
How you ended up with your first pair of Elan skis has become a legend. What happened exactly?
I got them from an Elan distributor in Sweden who saw me skiing with a friend. He recognized our potential and gave us skis. I was a promising skier then but not an exceptional one.
What were your relations with the press like?
Most of the time they were good. I didn’t enjoy it though… it was a necessary evil. It was OK as long as it didn’t affect my concentration. We arranged when to do interviews in advance: how long before a race and how long after a race. Nowadays, I am not particularly happy to talk to the press. Things like this interview are OK but sometimes, especially in Sweden, journalists want to talk about money, my tax situation or political issues.
In the 1980’s, when Kri?aj & Co. were competing in the World Cup as the Yugoslav national team, were they looked down upon because they were from an Eastern Bloc country?
I don’t think so. There were no problems; they were treated as equals and not labelled ‘communists’. For most countries, they were simply Yugoslavs. But some of us, including myself, knew about Slovenia.
What are your memories of Kranjska Gora?
It was a difficult race. It was very icy, there were a lot of people and lots of pressure, although not as much as in Sweden. As an Elan racer, I received a lot of support and I felt almost like a Slovene.
Was the affection reciprocal? Did you feel for Slovenia?
I was racing and only spending a day or two here, maybe also a bit of training from time to time. I didn’t have any direct contact with the public, so I didn’t feel the euphoria. I knew a little about it from the Slovenes involved in the World Cup. I regret that I didn’t have time to think about it but I was just so focused on skiing.
Who are your Slovenian friends?
Mostly Bojan Kri?aj and Jure Vogelnik (Stenmark’s former ski technician). We see each other from time to time and discuss everyday things; sometimes we also talk about the old days but without any nostalgia.
What do you like about Slovenia?
It’s a beautiful country with mountains and very nice, friendly and generous people. I haven’t had a chance to explore it more thoroughly, though. Besides the Kranjska Gora area, I have been to Bled, which is a very pretty place, Ljubljana and the Postojna Cave.
What do you think about Kranjska Gora as a ski resort?
It is not big but you have all kinds of skiing here, from flat to steep. It is a very compact and challenging place. I would be happy to come here skiing for a day or two but if you want to stay longer then it is small compared to other resorts. Otherwise, the facilities have changed a lot since the first time I was here and the place is becoming more like other European resorts. The same goes for Slovenia as a whole.
What are you looking for when you pick somewhere to go to for your own winter holidays?
I have problems, to be honest. Last year we went to St Moritz for no particular reason; maybe because it has a lot of sunshine, nice weather and good snow. I don’t have a favourite ski resort. I like it where the food is good. I like Italy and Switzerland and France is so so.
What do you think about the future of Elan and the ski industry in general?
It is difficult to say because I am not familiar with their financial situation. A lot will depend on the climate. If we have many warm winters, it could become difficult for some companies. Elan is known for its constant innovations and it is no surprise that other companies are interested in buying it.
What was your transition from competition to everyday life like?
I had decided one year earlier that I was going to stop the following year. I also knew that I was going to stay in the ski industry, ski a lot and work in this field. For me, it was not a big problem. I liked being out of the spotlight and living a normal life without pressure, while still enjoying skiing at the same time.
Is your retirement model only possible for the most successful skiers?
Probably, yes. Some athletes have problems after retiring. A Swedish Olympic champion, for example, committed suicide. In Sweden, there is an organization that tries to help athletes after they retire. It involves former top athletes and when a company or somebody else needs their services they can turn to them.
Have you ever had ambitions to become a coach?
No. I know how to ski but I don’t know how to put it into words. I skied by feel and that’s the hard thing; it’s OK as long as you are doing well but when things go wrong you don’t know why nor what to do.
Which experiences from your competitive days can you apply to everyday life?
To be patient. When you are an athlete you realize that everything takes a lot of time and practice. You don’t get anything for free, you have to work hard if you want to be successful.
During your competitive years you looked like a well-oiled Scandinavian machine. Did you have any weak points at all?
I was too slow on the flat, the gliding parts, because I wasn’t heavy enough. At 72 kilos, I am too light for today’s style. It might be OK for slalom but not for giant slalom or super-G. In those disciplines you have to be 80, 90 or 100 kilos.
In terms of concentration, I don’t know what I did. I had some kind of mental preparation without knowing it. People often asked me ‘how do you do your mental training’ and I said ‘I never do it’. But then someone asked me ‘do you do this and that’ and that’s when I realized that, in fact, I did have some kind of mental training.
What’s your typical day?
There are no typical days in my life. Sometimes I do things like this (promotional activities) but generally I stay at home and spend time with my girlfriend and our five-month-old baby. In the summer, I play golf and go cycling and in the winter I go skiing.
How often do you attend World Cup races?
This winter I will only go to one event, in Zagreb in the middle of February.