Katharina Liensberger: How a pop hit inspired me to 'fly' to gold

Austria's ski sensation comes from a gymnastics background, loves playing the harp, and finds motivation in music before racing.

By Alessandro Poggi
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Alpine ace Katharina Liensberger has been influenced by some of the finest skiers in history.

She is a fan of Lindsey Vonn, once the subject of a school presentation by the Austrian, and current rival Mikaela Shiffrin, who was just 18 when she became the youngest ever Olympic slalom champion at Sochi 2014.

The 24-year-old also witnessed with her own eyes the greatness of compatriots Marcel Hirscher and Anna Veith:

"They just achieved so much during their careers and it was great to be able to watch them, but for me it was also important to do it my way and just be myself," she said during a video-call from her home in the region of Vorarlberg, near the border with Switzerland.

So what is the Liensberger way?

“For me, it's always important to ski with enthusiasm and to ski with my full heart because I really love what I'm doing. And that is skiing.”

“There are a lot of [people] saying that I'm smiling when I'm skiing. And maybe it's a little bit right because I really love to do what I'm doing.” - Katharina Liensberger

Liensberger propelled herself into the alpine elite with two world titles and a slalom Crystal Globe last season, and is now the star of the Austrian national team.

The technical specialist has been able to compete with, and beat, the big two - Shiffrin and Petra Vlhova - with her popularity skyrocketing in her skiing-obsessed homeland.

While she admits intrusions into her private life are "not perfect", she says, "It brings me a lot of joy if I can make people happy. And when I see the bright eyes of the children looking at me, it feels great.”

Liensberger: A star born at Cortina 2021

Having steadily climbed the rankings in the 2020/21 season, Liensberger made a stunning breakthrough at last February's Cortina 2021 Alpine World Ski Championships.

"It was just an amazing season," she recalls.

"All in all, it was just a making a step closer every time as I was continuously improving. So at first, I had some third places, second place and then the World Championships in the middle. And then there were three medals, of course, two gold (parallel slalom, slalom), one bronze (giant slalom). And then I came back and I won my first World Cup races (in Are and Lenzerheide), so it was just amazing.

"I wanted to medal at the championship in slalom, which was really, really important for me personally after the first one (in parallel) that I didn't expect. The medal in slalom was the main goal for me and there was a lot of pressure. But I made it in the end, and that was just amazing for me to show that I was able to do it."

The Austrian explains how proving her potential in a race gave her confidence:

“One thing is to know that you can be fast, but also you need to show you can be fast,” she said.

"For me, it was always about making a step closer. I just tried a lot of times to be fast, and I always wanted to ski for myself as fast as I can, of course. And it often didn't work out. But then I just always got closer to it, and also the years before, I just always improved and got better and better.”

Katharina Liensberger celebrates her gold medal  in slalom during the FIS Alpine Ski World Championships in Cortina.
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Liensberger: Mantras and music inspiration

"I always had a mantra in my head like: 'Ski fast, do what you love, let dreams come true and you will see that everything is possible.'"

Finding enjoyment in her skiing was key for Liensberger to achieve her impressive results.

Self-belief was another important factor.

The 24-year-old built her confidence by following three simple words: 'Believe. Fly. Achieve'. This slogan also appears in her Instagram profile along with the emojis of an eagle and a star:

"It means that to really do something, you really have to believe that you can make it and you just have to do it. To fly, it means just to live your dream every day," the Austrian revealed.

'Fly' is also the title of the hit song by Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, released more than 10 years ago. Liensberger listened to it before winning gold in the Cortina slalom ahead of Vlhova and four-time reigning champ Shiffrin.

She said, "I had this feeling of flying in my head. Yeah, it really worked out!

"I listen to music at the races, so I love to have often just the music, just one title for one race, and then I can really identify myself with this music on this place. And it's really great."

Music is another of Liensberger's passions, as perhaps befits someone hailing from the land of Mozart.

She often plays the harp and shared a recital with her Instagram followers on Christmas Eve.

"I've played it since I was about 10 years old. It's just for myself and I really like it," she said.

"It's a good variation and helps me just to calm down." - Katharina Liensberger on playing the harp

Having a good tempo could also be beneficial down the slopes:

"For me personally, it feels great to have a good rhythm also for the turns, so maybe just when we're talking about dancing through the gates, it helps to have a good rhythm."

Liensberger: Moulded by artistic gymnastics

As well as being a talented skier and gifted musician, Liensberger has impressive coordination and can easily perform flips and headstands in the gym.

She credits her balance and core strength to artistic gymnastics, which she practised from an early age:

"I just freshened it up a little bit now during the preparation time at the Olympic Training Centre in Vorarlberg. It helps me a lot, when I stand on the balance beam, it improves my agility.

"And I think it's really important for children to do gymnastics because it's a really good way to know your body, and control the tension in your muscles, so this helps a lot also for other kind of sports that you will do later on.

"For me, it's just also a lot of fun - if you can do it and just move your body as you like to."

Second Olympic experience

Beijing 2022 will be Liensberger's second Olympic Winter Games.

She had her first taste of a multi-sport winter event in 2015, when she took part in the home European Youth Olympic Winter Festival in Vorarlberg and Liechtenstein.

Four years ago, she was a last-minute inclusion in the Austrian squad for PyeongChang and ended up with a silver medal in the team event after finishing eighth in the slalom.

"It was great, my first Olympics. I just qualified in the last moment in Lenzerheide: I came in sixth place in slalom and then one week later I was in PyeongChang and I didn't expect a lot of things.

"It was just amazing when we had a team event just competing together as one nation. So it was nation Austria. And then we won the silver medal and then we stood there at the medal ceremony. And for me, yeah, a dream came true there."

Expectations are far greater this time with Liensberger heading to China as one of the favourites in the individual tech events:

"Last time, it was just so unexpected... everything. Maybe now I can just really focus on it."

"Of course, the medals, to collect medals [is the goal], that's the same as the world championships. So, yeah, you're going to the Olympics to achieve a medal."

Liensberger (Second from the right) won silver in the team event with Austria at PyeongChang 2018.
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

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