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Former ski star becomes ambassador for Toggenburg


(Toggenburg tourism)

Maria Walliser, one of Switzerland's top alpine skiers in the 1980s, has returned home to Toggenburg to become its tourist ambassador. It's hoped that the popular athlete can help attract more visitors to the little known eastern region.

Even though it's a warm day, Maria Walliser puts on her ski jacket. With the imposing peaks of the Churfirsten mountain chain towering behind her, she smiles for the camera.

Photographer Daniel Ammann has been given the task of capturing on film Toggenburg's best-known person along with the region's most famous natural landmark.

As Ammann changes film, Walliser explains that one of her first acts as ambassador for Toggenburg will be to climb all seven peaks of the Churfirsten chain in one day.

"I was asked by Toggenburg tourism to become the ambassador for this beautiful valley, but I don't know why they didn't ask me earlier because in many ways I've always been an ambassador for Toggenburg," she explains.

Ski out back door

"I grew up in the valley, and during my career as a professional skier, reporters always spoke of the girl from Toggenburg, which helped make the region known."

As a child, Walliser learned to ski out of her back door in her hometown of Mosnang in lower Toggenburg.

"I spent much of my youth training for my skiing career," she says. "I went everywhere on my bicycle or on roller skates, and in winter on my skis. The countryside around my hometown still means a lot to me."

In her early teens, the talented skier trained on the more challenging slopes below the Churfirsten peaks in upper Toggenburg. When she was only 17, she came out of nowhere to finish second in a World Cup race, and to the joy of her family and friends, it was in a race held in Toggenburg.

Overnight celebrity

The teenager became an overnight celebrity in Switzerland and had to learn quickly to deal with the media.

Over the following 10 years, Walliser rivalled Switzerland's legendary skier, Vreni Schneider, for scoring victories. She captured two Overall World Cup titles and reached her peak at the world championships in 1987 when she won two gold medals.

As a model, photographer Ammann calls her a professional. "She knows how to look into the camera," he says.

"I'm used to [having my picture taken], but I don't have to do it as often as I once did so I find it more difficult to motivate myself for a photo session," Walliser responds. "It's part of this new job to have good, professional photos and new material to work with for the new brochures and upcoming events."

Authentic charm

She cherishes her new role because she believes in what she is selling. She says the charm of Toggenburg's rustic villages is authentic, and that the people of the valley carry on age-old traditions not to impress tourists but because they are proud of their heritage.

The former skier and her photographer have chosen to hold the photo session outside a dairy farm because of the spectacular views across to the Churfirsten peaks.

During a session earlier in the year, Walliser donned a traditional Toggenburg dress and posed for pictures inside the dairy where cheese is still made the old-fashioned way.

The cheese maker, Jakob Knaus, learned the craft from his father who learned it from his father. Today, Knaus is one of the last of his kind who still uses an open fire in the process, and has discovered that he can earn some additional income by instructing small groups of curious tourists in the art of traditional cheese making.

"Most people who come here to try to make cheese are interested in the process," says Knaus. "Many say they had no idea how cheese was made and others say it has taught them why cheese is so expensive!"

Walliser says that part of her job is to convince more residents of Toggenburg to market their skills and the valley. "It's my job to promote Toggenburg, to have contact with the media and to be present at special events," she explains.

"I also have to talk to the people, and convince them that the beautiful region won't sell itself, but has to be promoted."

by Dale Bechtel


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