Cool Stiegler weaves his way to slalom glory

Picture by IOC

Hailing from the Austrian town of Lienz, Josef Pepi Stiegler made his name as a teenager in winning the national junior slalom and combined titles in 1957. After then excelling in every discipline on the international circuit, he made the Austria team for Squaw Valley 1960, where he won giant slalom silver, finishing just four tenths behind Switzerland Roger Staub.

Following a poor run of results in the 1963/64 season, Stiegler only earned selection for the Innsbruck Games at the very last moment, prompting him to comment: “Not knowing if I would be selected was very dramatic, but it got me in the emotional and spiritual state I needed to be in to excel myself in the race. I wasn’t thinking about medals, simply because I’d earned the privilege to participate.”

The first man down the course in the giant slalom at the 1964 Winter Games, Stiegler posted a time of 1:48.05, one that ultimately proved good enough for bronze, with only France’s François Bonlieu and fellow Austrian Karl Schranz going faster, taking gold and silver respectively.

Six days later Stiegler pulled on the No8 bib in the slalom, an event in which he had high hopes of giving the vocal Austrian fans something to cheer about: “I was really expecting to do well. I was completely focused on what I was going to do that day, though I wasn’t thinking about the podium that much. It was just a question of doing what I had to do to be at my very best.”

He achieved that particular goal on a flowing first run, skilfully weaving his way past the 71 gates to open out a lead of over a second from Schranz, who was followed closely by group of four other skiers, led by the USA’s Jimmy Heuga.

In the second run the leading 15 skiers went out in reverse order, each of them in with a chance of victory according to Stiegler: “Not only did you have to be the best on the day, you needed to have a lot of things go right for you. It comes down to things like how you sleep, how you feel when you wake up and how you feel on the morning.”

The Austrian went out last on run two, by which time USA team-mates William “Billy” Kidd and Heuga stood at the top of the leaderboard, their excellent times heaping the pressure on Stiegler.

With Schranz having slipped up on his second run and tumbled to 24th, the hopes of the host nation rested on Stiegler’s shoulders. Holding his nerve as the cheers of the crowd echoed around him, Pepi safely negotiated the course in the eighth-fastest time to win by 0.14 seconds from Kidd, with Heuga a further quarter of a second behind.

The only double medallist in men’s Alpine skiing at Innsbruck 1964, Stiegler briefly turned professional and also enjoyed a short tenure as coach of the Austrian team. In 1965, he was invited by the founder of the Jackson Hole ski resort in Wyoming to help him develop it. Accepting the invitation, Stiegler set up the first ski school there and held the post of resort director for the next 37 years.

Born in 1985, his daughter Resi represented the USA in the slalom, giant slalom and the combined at Turin 2006, Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014.