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The Olympics' only triple gold medalist, and beyond question the world's greatest skier in 1956, is a 20-year-old Austrian who combines the muscles of a champion with the sensitivity of an artist and the glamour of a movie star.
Anton (Toni) Sailer's face is known on every Alpine slope. At Cortina Sailer (rhymes with miler) is likened to Tyrone Power, but his shyness and reticence are as striking as his good looks, and he might be more aptly called the Li'l Abner of the Tyrolean hills.
Among the taciturn mountain folk of Kitzb�hel, his home, to whom snow is as certain an ingredient of life as earth to a farmer, he is accepted as peerless, though no such compliment would be paid to his face.
If this winner of the giant slalom, special slalom and downhill races has a secret, it is his familiarity with—and sensitivity to—snow. His victories have been made the easier at Cortina because of the difficulties, natural and man-made. Snow has been scarce enough to make runs more dangerous than usual; moreover, by general consent, the Cortina slalom course has been the most difficult in Olympic history. The snow was icy, the gradients steep, 70 gates had been placed on the first run and no fewer than 98 on the second. Sailer won his triple crown not merely by going faster than the others. When others were falling, he knew when to go slow: not through familiarity with the courses, but by the feel of the snow through his skis.
When Sailer is asked why he won, he tends to shrug his shoulders and say, "Well, I went faster." Zeno Colo, the former Italian gold-medal skier, who has carefully watched all the ski events here, is more articulate about Sailer:
"He is gentle with the snow. He is never rough to his skis. He has an immediate, faster-than-thought reaction to varying snow conditions. So he snatches an advantage a split second sooner than anyone else, which takes him 10 yards ahead while the others are still wondering."
The Austrian, Anderl Molterer, and the Frenchman, Adrien Duvillard, were the only two to get close to Sailer. But they fell, while Sailer, always under control, surged unfalteringly to the finish line. Says Colo:
"His every movement is controlled, not by reason, but by lightning subconscious reflex. In the language that the skis talk through the feet, to the legs and body. It is a language unknown to most men and women, but it is the whisper Sailer understands best."
Sailer himself would consider this analysis of his genius a trifle poetical. Yet he admits, "One doesn't notice one's reactions, nor how they arise. One just must have them. Skiing is really a test of subconscious reactions."
Toni's coach, Fred Rosner, and Edgar Fried, the bespectacled head of the Austrian delegation to Cortina, admit there is nothing they can teach the boy. All they can do is keep a watchful eye on his diet (he drinks wine twice a day, before and during competition, and for breakfast fancies a mixture of milk, honey and sugar, which he stirs with a spoon for a full five minutes) and ensure he has enough sleep. Says Fried: