Wenzel enjoys golden moment in the slalom
As Hanni Wenzel skied towards her third Olympic medal at Lake Placid in 1980, three flag-waving fans from her homeland of Liechtenstein cheered her on to glory. Their last-minute dash to the USA paid off, as Wenzel won gold in the women’s slalom, giving the tiny European principality a rare moment of sporting glory.
Wenzel, born in West Germany, moved to Liechtenstein when she was a year old. After showing early promise on the slopes, she was granted citizenship of the Principality when she won the slalom competition at the 1974 World Championships in St Moritz. Two years later, at the Innsbruck Winter Olympic Games, having trained with the Swiss national team, she won a bronze medal in the giant slalom , and in 1978 she won the World Cup.
In the slalom race at Lake Placid she breezed effortlessly through her two runs on the 52 and 53-gate courses, claiming gold with an overall time of 1:25.09 ¬¬– and earning her the unofficial title of the outstanding competitor of the Games.
The 23-year-old had already claimed a gold medal in the two-day giant slalom competition after her great rival, Marie-Theres Nadig of Switzerland, crashed on her first run.
And she had caused an upset in the women’s downhill eight days previously, claiming a completely unexpected silver medal, with a performance second only to that of the blisteringly fast gold medallist Austrian Annemarie Moser-Pröll. Again she edged Nadig into third place in a race hampered by 75mph winds.
Liechtenstein’s athletes had won medals at the Winter Games previously, but Wenzel brought the country its first taste of gold. And by winning two golds and one silver at a single Games, she matched the feat of the legendary Rosi Mittermaier four years earlier.
Her brother Andreas added to the Wenzels’ adopted country’s tally when he won a silver medal in the men’s giant slalom. In addition to her Olympic success, she won nine World Cup races in 1980 and captured the overall, giant slalom, and combined season titles.
Wenzel told reporters after securing her final medal at Lake Placid: “This has been the biggest success of my career.”
Such was the relative rarity of Liechtenstein Olympic success that Wenzel’s medal ceremonies caused some bemusement among spectators, as she climbed the podium to the strains of British national anthem God Save the Queen – which happens to share the same music as the Principality’s anthem.
Wenzel’s skiing career lasted another four years, and she retired after the 1984 Sarajevo Games with two Olympic titles, four World titles, two overall World Cups, three discipline World Cups, plus three combined titles and 33 World Cup victories to her name. She trails only Vreni Schneider and Katja Seizinger in the all-time ranking of women Olympic Alpine skiers.