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Contemplating the forbidding figure of Coach Willy Schaeffler (right), Dave Shaw, co-captain of Denver University's crack ski team, said recently, "Sometimes he antagonizes you to the point where you want to challenge him, but you go out and win instead." That, in a sentence, is the story of Willy Schaeffler, the most successful ski coach in the United States. It is also the story of the Denver team, which was a collection of unknowns until Willy arrived from Bavaria in 1948. Since then they have won five national collegiate ski championships, the last three in a row. And this coming weekend, March 29-31 at Snow Basin in Ogden, Utah, they will be odds-on to make it four in a row.
What Willy has done is take a collection of good skiers and, by driving them to the point of exhaustion six months out of the year, has conditioned them and molded them into one of the toughest teams in the history of college skiing. "I try to make practice so hard," says Willy, "that competition is easy."
The grind begins for Denver skiers the day they arrive for school in the fall. Willy starts them off by running them up and down the football stadium steps (80 rows), first frontwards, then backwards. If they make it all right, Willy sets them hopping on one foot—all the way up and back.
On that same first day they go through wind sprints, digging across the turf with summer-softened legs. By late afternoon the Denver ski team is likely to look like a bunch of Roger Bannisters coming over the finish line after a new mile record. At that point, Willy blows the whistle and starts a soccer game. "They like the game so much," chuckles Willy, "that they run another three or four miles playing it." After soccer, even Schaeffler is willing to call it a day. But it behooves a Denver ski candidate to live close to the football field, because Willy has one word to say about automobiles: "Verboten." His skiers walk everywhere they go.
For some of the recruits, one day under Willy is enough. "It's very hard," he conceded in a moment of compassion. "A few of the boys quit, sometimes real good skiers. But," he added, hardening up, "if they haven't got the will power for it they won't stand up in competition."
When the brave survivors turn out the second day, the third day and on into the early weeks of training, they find the need for will power more acute. From the wind sprints they now progress to running six miles a day across fields, down highways, along sections of railroad ties, teetering back and forth to sharpen their balance. They run down jagged hills, over jumps, across rocks and ditches, and at top speed through thick woods. And when they get back to the football field, there are the wind sprints and the hopping races up the stadium steps again, only this time each runner and climber is carrying a teammate—or Willy—in his arms.
Faced with this Spartan routine, the Denver kids would probably all throw in the towel before the first snowfall except for one decisive fact. Everything the boys do, Willy does. And at 41 he can still do everything better, stronger and longer than any of his 20-year-old champions. When six skiers rumble down the field, each lugging a hefty teammate, the man in front is always Willy. When they scramble through the six-mile torture of a crosscountry run, there is Willy out in front. "I hear the boys talking among themselves," he said, smiling. "They say if he can do it, an old man, we got to do it." And when the soccer game starts, there is Willy, giving it all he's got. Sometimes he gives too much, like the midwinter day three years ago when he staggered out of a ball scramble with a broken leg. But even that didn't stop him. A cast on the leg, a short ski strapped onto the cast, a couple of crutches tucked under his arm, and he was out on the slope shuffling around, conducting practice.
It hardly hurt at all. Besides, broken bones are nothing new to Willy. In 1936, four years after he won the Bavarian junior Alpine championships against some of the best young skiers in the world, Willy came whooshing off the end of a ski jump squarely into a loose toboggan. Fracture count: 14, including two broken legs. As a German soldier, he got it even worse. In 1940 he was thrown into a penal battalion (for anti-Nazi Germans) that later spearheaded the drive on Moscow, was wounded three times, the third time so badly he was thought beyond recovery.
Skiing in Garmisch after the war, which he finished in an Austrian underground unit, he was hurt again when he schussed into a stump, flew through the air and landed on another stump. Score this time: six ribs and a left hip.
Since he emigrated to America in 1948, Willy has managed to keep his fracture count down to two: the soccer accident and a broken thighbone in the 1950 FIS trials. He has also managed to keep the accident rate astonishingly low among his Denver boys. He does it by making them so hard and tough that their legs can take anything. And he does it by making sure that each boy knows exactly what he's doing before he ever goes to the starter's gate. The first snow in Denver usually arrives the first week in November. Instead of breaking out the slalom poles, Willy starts the team off on the lowly snowplow. "There are many skiers today," Willy explained, "who came along so fast with a reputation as skiers that they never really took time to perfect the basic maneuvers. Fast competition is dangerous for boys like this. All they know is how to ski fast, or else they have learned to look fancy, or copied the form of stars they have seen. You must have" the fundamentals, and I try to teach the boys to build up their fundamentals so that speed no longer is a danger."