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The King of skiing: Gustav Thöni

World Champion and Olympic Champion


Name: Gustav Thöni
Birthplace: Trafoi am Stilfserjoch
Date of birth: 28 February 1951
Marital status: married to Ingrid Pfaundler
Children: three daughters: Petra Maria Thöni, Susanne Thöni and Anna Thöni
Nationality: South Tyrolean / Italian

Skiing career: In the early 1970s, Gustav Thöni was the great idol of Italian as well as international skiing fans. The shy young man from Trafoi impressed everyone with his superior alpine skiing technique over the course of several years. The South Tyrolean ranked highest overall at the World Cup a total of four times and, in his prime, was an Olympic gold medalist and multiple World Champion in the various disciplines. After concluding his career as an active athlete, he maintained his connection to skiing as a coach. In the 1990s, he became the personal coach of Alberto Tomba, contributing to the skier’s great success over the course of several seasons.

A lifetime of skiing

Gustav Thöni - detailed biography

Young Thöni

Gustav Thöni came into the world on 28 February 1951 during a harsh winter, with an effective snow height of seven meters. He was born in the mountain village of Trafoi, within the Italian province of South Tyrol. Even as a three-year-old boy, Gustav began skiing on the Kirchenhang slope directly outside the Schönen Aussicht/Bella Vista Hotel. As a type, his father Georg Thöni was “half Fürst Orsini, half Luis Trenker, Italian youth champion, Fascist champion” as the Austrian magazine Ski-Welt characterized him. He had pursued a career as a skier himself, but it was disrupted because of the war. So he devoted himself personally to his talented son’s career, and nurtured the wish “to make up for lost time through his son.” Georg Thöni operated a ski lift at the Stelvio Pass, where his son Gustav and his cousin Roland Thöni could ski in summer and were able to watch and emulate the various national teams as they trained. Gustav’s father, Georg Thöni, was effectively responsible for the support of both young Thöni boys; he built the two up until, finally, they were included on the national team.

First international success

It was thus at a relatively late stage – at the age of 17 – that Gustav Thöni was invited to join the Italian national team. He found a great supporter, however, in the new head coach: Frenchman Jan Vuarnet. He had his first international engagement in the spring of 1969, at the Nations Cup in Val-d'Isere: in two giant slaloms, the unknown 18-year-old defeated the whole international elite. The headlines were clear: “Outsider Vanquashes the World Class” (SZ), “Skiing Elite Made to Dance to the Tune of Thöni” (BILD), and “Thöni Sublime – Will He Become Another Killy?” (Welt). At long last, his father’s work had paid off. In no time, the 1.72 m tall and 65 kg South Tyrolean had not only revolutionized his weight-shifting technique, allowing him to approach the gate combinations from an extreme height, but also the skiing style of the world class, ushering in a new era. Coach Vuarnet was thrilled, “This boy is a gift from God; this is the man of the future.”

1970 World Cup in Gröden

Italy's new skiing star was first put to the test at the 1970 home World Cup in the Gardena/Gröden Valley. Because of his superb results in advance of the title race, fanatical supporters were already overhyping the young Thöni as World Champion. He broke under the pressure of being both local hero and big favorite, though: In the giant slalom, which he had already won for three seasons running, he was already eliminated by the time he’d reached the third gate. He came in fourth in the slalom, thus earning no medal – which many of his fans never forgave. Despite all of the disappointment, Gustav Thöni looked on the bright side of the World Championship defeats: In fact, the youngster said it was “the best thing that could have happened to me for my future skiing career” because he was able to gain crucial experience in the World Cup; he won on special scoring for the giant slalom and placed third in the overall standings – just eight points behind winner Karl Schranz. A year later Gustav Thöni would win his first overall World Cup.

Success in the winter of 1971-72

The following winter, the 20-year-old left his competitors far behind: he won four races again in 1970/71, reaching several other top places and standing on the podium at Sugarloaf in the U.S.A., even winning his first downhill. He announced that he would be considered a combined athlete in the future. This was already the case at the Winter Olympics of 1971/72: in Japan, at the Olympic Games in Sapporo, where the South Tyrolean lived up to his position as the favorite, he won gold in the giant slalom and silver in the slalom. His cousin Roland Thöni was just behind, winning bronze, while gold went to a surprise winner: Francisco Fernandez-Ochoa from Spain. The Alpine triple combination was another gold medal for the super technician from Trafoi – even if only as part of the championship standings. He also won his second overall World Cup this winter.

Hattrick in the overall World Cup 1972-73

In the winter of 1972-73 Gustav Thöni even managed a hat trick in the overall World Cup: thanks to his two slalom victories in St. Anton and Quebec, with which he also laid the foundation for the victory in the special stage, he was just able to distance himself from Austrian David Zwilling in a duel that was thrilling to the finish. In the following winter of 1974, the 22-year-old Thöni found surprising competition within his own camp: Piero Gros sent Gustav to second place in the World Cup.

Leader of the Valanga Azzurra

The heyday of Italian skiing: between 1971 and 1975, the Azzurri eclipsed everyone. Leading the way was Gustav Thöni, his success inspiring the rest of the national Italian ski team. There was an internal rivalry that served the athletes well, and the team developed into the world’s most successful ski team at that time. The 1973 World Cup of Skiing in Berchtesgaden was spectacular. Italian ski racers occupied the first five places: Piero Gros, Gustav Thöni, Erwin Stricker, Helmut Schmalzl and Tino Pietrogiovanna. All Italians on the podium, truly a sensation! From then on, the press dubbed this era that of the Valanga Azzurra (Blue Avalanche).

Two-time World Champion in St. Moritz 1974

At the World Championships in St. Moritz, Gustav Thöni was the standard bearer for the Italian national team, which can be seen as symbolic in a time of political tension between South Tyrol and Italy. Gustav Thöni won twice: in the giant slalom and in the slalom. The most impressive moment here was his performance through a sea of flags during his second slalom run: in his first run, Gustav Thöni placed only eighth, but in the second run he managed a “run of the century” that sent him straight to first place on the podium. The whole of the media agreed that it was “the most fabulous slalom run man has ever given to date." The gazettes were bursting with hymns of praise: “Thöni mondiale strepitoso" was the front-page headline on the usually football-fanatic Gazzetta dello Sport. “Miracolo azzurro” or “Il doppio oro di Gustavo.”

Parallel slalom in Val Gardena: Fourth overall World Cup

Gustav Thöni also wrote skiing history in the 1974–1975 season. That final could not have been more thrilling. Before the final and decisive parallel slalom, three skiers were at the top, equal on points: Franz Klammer was the superior downhill skier of the season and Ingemar Stenmark was a young aspiring superstar. In the parallel slalom, downhill skier Franz Klammer had no chance. The grand finale between Stenmark and Thöni was a showdown: Gustav Thöni won his fourth overall World Cup in front of 40,000 enthusiastic fans. Thöni’s overall victory was well-deserved because he had proved himself as the most complete skier over the course of winter, with wins in all three combinations (Wengen, Kitzbühel, Megeve/Chamonix). His second place at the Streif downhill in Kitzbühel, when he was unofficially just three-thousandths of a second behind Franz Klammer, made huge headlines.

1976: Innsbruck Olympics

The Winter Olympics of 1975/76 was Gustav Thöni’s last great season: from that point on, Stenmark increasingly overshadowed him. He won only two World Cup races, and was soon clearly behind the Swede: he finished third overall in the World Cup. This winter, he had focused on the highlight of the season: the Olympics in Innsbruck. The 24-year-old was clearly leading the giant slalom after the first run, but after a botched second run he fell victim to his nerves and eventually finished only fourth. A few days later, he managed a good recovery at the slalom, coming in behind his compatriot Piero Gros with a silver medal. He also secured his recent victory in the World Cup combination, but he had missed his goal of winning Olympic gold a second time.

A grand active career comes to an end

In the following seasons, Gustav Thöni was without a World Cup race victory for the first time since 1969. Although he won the combination at Kitzbühel, the superior Ingemar Stenmark won the overall World Cup ranking. In 1977–1978 he spent nearly the entire season trying to regain his form. Then in the winter, Gustav Thöni stood on the World Cup slalom platform again in Åre – this time for the last time. This result was confirmed once again in the upcoming Olympic season at Lake Placid (1980): in his third Olympics, he placed eighth. That same year, the South Tyrolean ended his active athletic career.

Success as Alberto Tomba's trainer and athlete of the century

After Gustav Thöni had retired from skiing for some time, in order to devote himself to personal matters, he returned to the ski circuit as a junior coach for the Italian Skiing Federation. In 1989 he became Alberto Tomba’s personal trainer, and the successful duo enjoyed a number of great successes up until 1996: they won just about everything there is to win in Alpine skiing. The former ski racer’s work was widely noted, and so the Italian Ski Association engaged Gustav Thöni as head coach of the men's team in 1996. But in 1999 he fell victim to – as did all division coaches – the federation’s financial difficulties and its many austerity measures. In the year 2000 the readers of the Dolomiten newspaper elected him South Tyrol’s athlete of the century.

Film actor, successful hotelier and family man

Gustav Thöni’s enormous popularity had turned him into an Italian national hero. After the end of his sporting career, though, some new roles were imposed onto him that clearly made him feel out of his element: A film production company put him in two films, Der Abfahrer and Für eine hundertstel Sekunde, but neither did very well. He was also to have moved with his family to Milan, where he and his wife Ingrid were to appear regularly on a television show, but he turned it down. Likewise he did not pursue a lucrative offer from the professional U.S. ski circuit. Show business was not consistent with the former ski racer’s modest disposition: he preferred to remain in South Tyrol and build up his family hotel in his beloved mountains of Trafoi. Together with his wife Ingrid, he looks after guests from all over the world at the prestigious Bella Vista Hotel – in Trafoi, which is also his birthplace. His eldest daughter Petra Maria manages the hotel, while his second daughter Susanne teaches in the hotel school and his youngest daughter, Anna, does marketing for a well-known South Tyrolean city hotel. Today Gustav Thöni has eight grandchildren, with whom he still enjoys skiing. In his spare time, the nature-loving South Tyrolean can often be found outside, enjoying the mountains of his homeland.

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