Switzerland’s Greatest Ski Racer

Beyond the gates with Alpine legend Pirmin Zurbriggen

This interview originally published in the October 2015 issue of POWDER (44.2). PHOTO: David Carlier.

Pirmin Zurbriggen is the greatest ski racer in Swiss history. His career in the White Circus lasted 10 years—in at age 17, out by 27. In that time, he won 40 World Cup races, four overall World Cup titles, the Hahnenkamm (at the age of 21), the 1988 Olympic gold in downhill, and nine World Championship medals. Zurbriggen was also the first skier to win World Cup races in all five disciplines, forging an elite circle of versatility that only a handful of racers have entered, including Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller.

After clinching his fourth World Cup title in 1990—tying the record at the time—he quit ski racing to marry and have children. Today, Zurbriggen, 52, owns two hotels with his family—one in his hometown, Saas-Almagell, and the other at the foot of the Matterhorn in Zermatt. He is still—even 25 years after he left the World Cup—the most famous skier in Switzerland.

Photographer: David Carlier, www.davidcarlierphotography.com
The best Swiss skier of all time now lives in a fancy hotel in Zermatt. Of course he does. PHOTO: David Carlier

POWDER: So, how did you get onto the World Cup?
Pirmin Zurbriggen: To tell you in just a few words, I was living in Saas-Almagell, and just beside my home we had a chairlift and a little cable car. So every evening after school I was going skiing. I was quite strong for this region. Then I was coming to the Swiss Ski Team, and I was going up and up and, sometimes, so-so and down. Your career doesn’t just go up and up. But at 19 years old, I won my first World Cup. And since that time, I was 10 years in the World Cup. It was a hard time. It was a good time. Also, successful.

Yes—successful is an understatement.
For me, it was fantastic to ski in all the events.

That’s pretty rare now. Was it common then?
At that time, no, not at all. Everybody thought I had to be specialized in one discipline to reach the top. And for me, it was exactly the opposite. I never trained for the downhill, but the downhill, it was in my feeling, it was in my talent. I had just to ski for downhill training and that was it. I was quite lucky in this sport, I have to tell you that.

I never trained for the downhill, but the downhill, it was in my feeling, it was in my talent. I had just to ski for downhill training and that was it.

Well, it wasn’t just luck. What was your life like?
Skiing was my center. It was my life. I think when you want to reach the top of the world, it’s one part that you have the right talent, but also that you need to have the right preparation for yourself. You have to be happy with what you’re doing. You have to be very strong mentally. You have to be confident in yourself, that’s the biggest part. My father already liked skiing and competition, and I took a touch of that for my life. Also, one part that my parents gave me was my religion, to believe in Jesus Christ, and that gave me something… how do you say? A peace, a peace in this moment.

What kind of racing did your father do?
My father was a very good skier. He was 20 years old when he lost his brother in skiing. His brother, in my father’s eyes, was stronger and they did the downhill. But you have to know, at that time, the idea of downhill that you think of today—they were running up the mountain, no preparation, nothing, not at all, and they just whppff, just right down. They had no timing, they just started each minute. My father started two racers after his brother and he heard some noise. He said, “What’s happening?” And there was nobody around. Then he heard the voice of his brother and he had to bring him down to the village. Finally, he died. My father was so shocked about that he never skied again. I always had the feeling that his brother, he was a little bit on my side. I had this feeling, I cannot explain that.

How did you learn to ski?
I taught myself. Just skiing and watching TV and watching the other guys.

Why did you stop racing?
I was a little bit tired. I got married, and she was pregnant. And then I thought, OK, it’s too much risk and to be all the time away from home. I had this feeling for me—10 years on the World Cup. It was a hard time. I could do it for longer, but it was good to start another life.

So what’s life like now?
Just to tell you in one sentence: When you make sports, everything is about you. Everything around you, your concentration, what suits your body, everything—it’s your person. And now, as a hotelier, it’s just the opposite. You have to look at what is happening for the guests, what we can do better for the guests, what we can do for other people. You have exactly the opposite position. It makes it very funny, and also special.

Sometimes I go get people at the station with the electro car and the people, they are surprised. It’s important to see that if you have once been a hero or a champ or something like that, your person is not changing.

Do people still recognize you on the street?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely—Swiss people. But nobody else.

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