Austria’s Alpine ski team contained not one but two Egon Zimmermann: Egon Norbert Zimmermann, who competed at Squaw Valley 1960, where he met his future wife Penny Pitou, a medal-winning member of the USA ski team; and plain old Egon Zimmermann, no relation, who hailed from a family of modest means in Lech Am Arlberg.
When his home town became a ski resort, young Egon began to nurture his passion for skiing, spending his days flying down the slopes on well worn, second-hand skis, to the dismay of his parents, who sent him away to Paris to train as a chef at the Restaurant Ledoyen on the Champs-Élysées.
Within three years he was back in Lech and skiing again, honing the talent that would bring him three Austrian junior titles in 1958, a feat that earned him a place in the national team. “There’s no greater honour for an Austrian athlete,” said Zimmermann at the time. “For me, it’s the fulfilment of a childhood dream that’s only been interrupted by cooking. Even my parents agreed that I should carry on.”
Denied a trip to Squaw Valley 1960 by a shoulder injury, Zimmermann bounced back to win the 1962 world giant slalom title in Chamonix, where he also pocketed a bronze in the downhill. He went on to confirm his credentials by winning a string of races in an outstanding 1963 season, which ended with him being named Skier of the Year by the European press.
Tipped by the experts to repeat Toni Sailer’s golden Olympic hat-trick at Cortina d’Ampezzo 1956, Zimmermann began his bid for greatness at Innsbruck 1964 in the downhill, held before a vociferous home crowd on the Patscherkofel in Igls on the penultimate day of January.
After seeing France’s Léo Lacroix set the benchmark with a time of 2:18.90, Zimmermann, sporting the No7 bib, hurled himself through the start gate and into a thrilling and perfectly executed run that ended with him crossing the finish line in 2:18.16, taking a lead he would not relinquish. As the Austrian fans celebrated, Germany’s Wolfgang Bartels skied into third place behind Zimmermann and Lacroix.
The local hero was back in action three days later in the giant slalom. Though a red-hot favourite for gold, Zimmermann took a tumble, leaving the way clear for France’s François Bonlieu to take the spoils. Forced to sit out the slalom at Innsbruck 1964, the Austrian later continued his amateur career and took part in the first two seasons of the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup in 1967 and 1968. He returned to the Olympics at Grenoble 1968, finishing 13th in the downhill.
Now a hotel owner in his home town, Zimmermann joined his compatriots and fellow Olympic downhill champions Franz Klammer and Leonhard Stock in lighting the Olympic cauldron on the Bergisel at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck in 2012.