He was tall, dark and strapping, innocence personified, and at his peak there was no better ski racer in the world than Toni Sailer. Nor were there many people who were more famous. He was young, insufferably handsome, a window maker and eave-spout installer by profession, and the first man ever to win three gold medals in a single Winter Olympics, taking the slalom, giant slalom and downhill at Cortina in 1956. A year or two later a nationwide poll was taken in Austria, asking which person had done most for the country in its thousand-year history. Toni Sailer, the mountain boy from Kitzb�hel, finished fifth behind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Sailer was only 20 when he swept the Olympics, and he wore an air of insouciance, a hint of dimpled hayseed, the mildest touch of peasant simplicity. His looks were so stunning, featuring magnificent batting eyelashes and large soft brown eyes, that there could be no justifiable way that there should be more than a fairly dim bulb alight inside that handsome head. It simply would not be fair for God to have given anyone such great looks and a fine mind as well. So they called him a hick and Toni responded by flashing his snowy bashful smile. He skied everybody off the mountain until 1959. Then he quit and became a movie actor, playing a hockey goalie, a border guard, a cowboy, a garage mechanic, a gas-station attendant and, naturally, a dashing skier. And gradually Toni Sailer dropped out of sight.
Now let us flash ahead to 1972. There was a crisis in Austria: the national ski team was in a shambles, demoralized after its defeat in the Olympics at Sapporo. Karl Schranz, the venerable downhiller, had been summarily sent home from Japan by the International Olympic Committee. He was barred forever from amateur competition for doing something every major skier has done for a decade: taking money. The only consistent performer left was the splendid Annemarie Proell. In most countries this situation would be merely a superficial setback, but in Austria it was alarming, something that might have significant economic repercussions. The Austrian ski team is in reality a strong arm of Austrian commerce, a key element in selling and promoting Alpine tourism. Something had to be done. And in that serious hour Austria turned to the hayseed for help, naming Toni Sailer as the technical director of the team, in effect the supreme commander of competitive skiing in Austria.
People didn't quite know what to make of it. Could Toni Sailer coach? David Zwilling, 25, a veteran member of the team, recalls, "We thought we would be getting a national monument to coach us. And who thinks a national monument can coach a skier?"
At this point the monument had become a bit portly. He was prosperous, the owner of a successful pension in Kitzb�hel. He had been doggedly cautious with the money he made as an actor. Still, his movie career was dead now, and the luster of his Olympic sweep had long since been dimmed by the subsequent performance and glamour of Jean-Claude Killy. Sailer had become a second-rate celebrity at pro-am golf tournaments in the Alpine countries. Beyond the Alps the currency of his name had fallen almost to the point of trivia: "Who besides Killy won three...?" Hans Czappek, the Austrian team trainer who has known Sailer for years, says, "The job was the best thing that could happen. Toni was fat and drank too much a few years ago. But look at him now! Just look at him!"
Now, two years after he took the helm, Toni Sailer is trim and confident, a dashing lion of the mountains once more. At 39 he is perhaps even handsomer with middle-age lines lending character to his clean features. There is no bumpkin in him (many people say there never was). When he stands on the mountain he displays the decisive mien of a captain of industry (which, given the economy of Austria, he surely is).
Out of the shambles of 1972 Sailer has constructed one of the best ski teams of the decade, a tightly knit and sterling group which easily was the class at the 1974 FIS World Championships in St. Moritz last February and ran off with the World Cup team championship with 1,315 points to runner-up Italy's 766. Annemarie won her fourth straight individual World Cup title, is now en route to her fifth and the entire team is again leading the league. And with the Winter Olympics of 1976 scheduled for Innsbruck again, Toni Sailer may pass Mozart in the polls through another kind of Olympic triumph—as coach of a team that paves its country's streets with gold.
There has been a remarkable turnabout in the team's fortunes, and Sailer speaks with pride when he explains what he has done to make it happen. "When I first came to the team they had broken all apart. They had lost discipline. With skiers that can be bad. If you let them go and there is no control, they are lost—whoosh—overnight. This had happened. So I had to make changes. First, I put all of our skiers together. They had been separated in A, B and C teams, but I put all 110 kids together and told them everyone has a chance to come straight onto the first team. No more the young ones have to wait for an old one to grow so old he loses all his FIS points. This I told them in our first camp. Of course, the old ones started talking behind my back. Then they asked me if they had to be in bed by 10 o'clock, like the young ones. I said yes, everybody in bed at 10 o'clock, that is clear. If you want to stay up late with a girl friend or a movie, I said, you ask me. But no one up after 10 o'clock unless I know about it: then there is no control on the team. If you don't like it, I told them, we are not interested in having you here. You must want what we want or you must go."
Discipline came back fast. But this was not to be merely a regime of hard rules and rigid obedience. Toni Sailer is a more subtle fellow than that. "You have to make ski racing fun, you know," he says. "You must have new things. A top ski racer, if he skis on a hill four or five times, he knows every bump. We tried to find new scenery, new hills. Also skiers must have other interests. It takes them a while to get to the point where they see that skiing isn't everything. It is not a normal life, just skiing, skiing, skiing, then going to bed, sleeping, sleeping, sleeping. You have to bring them together with other things, to the theater or to visit cities they have not seen and to talk to people who are not ski people. And I am against taking children of 14 onto the national team for training. They should stay home, be with their own coaches and have a life like real children have. I have been president of the Kitzb�hel Ski Club since 1968, and I see lots of kids who come and cry because they are training so much they can't play any games. It's no good—just school and skiing, school and skiing. Then it gets to be like figure skating, no fun."
Beyond these insights, Sailer is said by experts to have an almost superhuman "eye" on the hill, an ability to detect nearly invisible flaws in a racer's technique. "If I can see a racer coming down, yes, I can see many of his mistakes," he says. "But that is not all there is to it. With top skiers like Proell or Zwilling you have to be very careful. Mainly you must not talk too much. Wait, wait. Send them away, say, 'It's O.K., go now, we will talk later." It is better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing, because once you have told them wrong, they won't believe you anymore, even if you are right. Wait, wait, wait. I tell all the coaches that. It took me almost eight slaloms to find out what the problem was with Proell last year. She was always falling. I finally saw that it was her boots. She needed support in her heels. I knew it pretty much for sure after the fourth slalom, but I watched five, six, eight before I told her, so I knew I was certain."