Manuel Feller: balancing White Circus madness with time out in the wilderness

In an exclusive interview with Olympics.com, Austria’s Manuel Feller talks about balancing life on the road in the vortex of Alpine skiing’s seasonal circuit with his beloved solitary pursuits in the wilderness.  

By Jo Gunston
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

In their home country, Austrian Alpine skiers cannot walk down the street without being recognised, such is the popularity of the sport.

The media follows their every move, fans ask for selfies at inopportune moments and pundits demand winning ways, a bit like football stars, says a man who knows, Manuel Feller, but there's a big difference:

“I can walk outside of Austria and Central Europe without anybody recognising me,” Feller told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview in October, “so you can't compare this to football… it's a world sport and if you take like, Lionel Messi, he could walk through Africa and everybody is recognising (him) so it's definitely not comparable with stars like this.”

Nevertheless, Alpine skiing is Austria’s national sport, which a look at the Olympic Winter Games medal table in the discipline makes only too clear.

Austria has won almost double the amount of medals of any other nation in Alpine skiing at the Olympic Winter Games, with 121 medals, including 37 golds. The next closest are great rivals, Switzerland, who have 66 medals, 22 of them gold.

With this weighty backstory of success comes pressure to perform, especially as one of the legends of the sport, winner of three of those Austrian Olympic medals, Marcel Hirscher retired after PyeongChang 2018. The seven-time world champion was unable to walk the streets of Salzburg without being mobbed by fans by the time he left the sport in 2019 at the peak of his career.

Feller is one of those who has stepped into the hot seat vacated by Hirscher and is one of Austria’s hot tips for a medal in the slalom and giant slalom disciplines come Beijing 2022, which begins 4 February.

Manuel Feller Alpine skier Austria
Picture by 2017 Getty Images

Already a world silver medallist in slalom in 2017, Feller is also an Olympic silver medallist courtesy of the team event at PyeongChang 2018. A maiden slalom World Cup win midway through last season, and two third places so far this season, both in the giant slalom, reveal Feller's increasing number of appearances on the podium. The joy of success, though, is tinged with increased attention.

“If we are doing well, we are the heroes, and if we are not doing that well, it can be a really tough time for you in Austria,” he laughs.

Staying grounded

A 20-year veteran of the World Cup tour, Feller has learned ways that suit his maverick character in order to manage the furore. Taking himself off to his grandfather’s cabin in the Austrian Alps and pursuing solitary hobbies such as fishing and wild swimming, activities that stem from his childhood, is one way he stays grounded.

“I grew up in the middle of Austria, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the mountains, way up in the Alps and we have like 2,000 inhabitants in our village. So I'm definitely a guy from nature that started to travel the world and experienced a lot and saw a lot of cities. So I would say there is that guy that wants to celebrate and wants all this trouble a little bit. But yeah, after some time, the trouble gets a little bit too much for that person and so he needs to find his grounding at the nature part again.”

Retreating to the mountains is exactly what he did after taking the first World Cup win of his career in front of the home crowd in January.

“After Flachau I went home and took my fishing stuff and went out fishing for 24 hours just to get away from all that stuff and (regain) consciousness (in) myself again.”

On being asked if he liked the idea of Norway’s Alpine ski team’s bonding effort in May – a three-day military-style session that included activities such as a morning dip in the Arctic Ocean and camping out overnight in their own hand-built shelter in freezing temperatures – Feller laughs.

“I go swimming when it's ice on the water by myself… I catch my food by myself, so I don't need this but it would be a nice experience, of course, with all my teammates. I think it's really good for the team spirit.” Grinning widely he then suggests it would be fun for the Austrian and Norwegian teams to do this together, as “they are nice and funny guys”. The twinkle in Feller’s eye indicates this is definitely one area he’d be the top man.

Outspoken

Feller’s outspoken personality also draws attention, especially a few years ago when he started publishing Felli Speaks His Mind videos on YouTube. The series came about after one particular January week, mid-way through a tiring World Cup season, when fans overstepped the mark on numerous occasions in a short space of time.

“We are sleeping in the hotel, not like football stars (who) have the hotel for just (them) – we are staying there with all types of people and even with some fans, and we don't have a problem with that. But I was eating bread for breakfast and my mouth was full of food and one guy sat next to me, put this arm around my head and said, 'Hey it's okay, if I take a picture?' That was in the morning, then it was 20 minutes before the start (of the race) that somebody stepped next to me in the toilet and did the same thing with his phone. And that was like three or four things within 24 hours and I just told the guys, 'Hey, there is a point where there is a cut'. So these are things I explained and told to fans and people on Felli Speaks His Mind, if something is good or something is not that good, I just told it to the people.”

The light-hearted outlet, however, is no more.

“It's about two or three years ago when the last episode of Felli Speaks His Mind was released, and this was a time when social media was like more sharing and more celebrating together and more saying what's good and what's bad without getting charged from all sides.”

Feller wouldn’t make a Felli Speaks His Mind Right now “because you have like 80 percent or something would just want to say how silly you are or how silly your opinion is or something like that. I think social media changed a lot in the last three or four years”.

Missing link

The past few years during the COVID-19 pandemic, with all its implications for balancing his life as an elite athlete and being a grounded family man, have provided additional life-learning experiences for Feller.

Wearing a mask enabled Feller to walk through cities unencumbered; there was less mayhem in the Alpine skiing circus; and racing, well, when you’re racing all that matters is that one minute from the start gate to the finish line, he says. “In this time, it doesn't matter if there are one, if there is zero people, or if there are 50,000 people. I'm in my world and that's why I am doing skiing.”

And yet, Feller knew something was missing.

“If you know this race from your childhood and from the last years with 50,000 people and you're crossing the finish line, maybe with a green light and nobody is cheering, that's just a strange feeling. I think skiing has always been a sport you can celebrate together and you can lift this sport together. And we definitely recognise that in the last season again, and we are very much looking forward to a season with maybe not that big crowd than before but with some people next to the slope that are celebrating and cheering for the sport and love the sport.”

Life's what happens...

In an interview with Olympics.com in 2019, Feller cited the lyric of a song as something that resonated with him at that time. Along the lines of, “I have stayed patient so long, now is my time to shine”, Feller explained: “I didn't shine as much as I wanted to, but nothing runs like planned in this sport, that's what I learnt the most.”

And now? What song lyric would represent where he is now?

“'What do you know if you learn every day, so be careful with the things that you say'," recites the self-confessed Reggae dancehall music fan crediting one of his favourite artists, Chronixx. "So it means you learn every day so think twice before you say something or think twice because tomorrow you could think different."

Feller pauses before adding with a smile: “I would say, if you're 40 year’s old and thinking the same that you have been thinking since you were 20, you have lost 20 years.”

The Alpine skiing competition at Beijing 2022 runs from 6-19 February 2022.

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