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Swiss ski star says farewell

Von Grünigen and wife Anna were honoured by several hundred fans

(swissinfo.ch)

Hundreds of fans have been gathering in the Bernese Oberland to celebrate the career of Swiss skiing star Michael von Grünigen.

At a retirement party in Gstaad, the 34-year-old officially said goodbye to the professional ski circuit after 15 years at the top.

"This is a great moment for me, and a great end to a fantastic career," von Grünigen told swissinfo after welcoming around 2,000 friends and supporters in a packed out sports hall.

"It's very moving that so many people have turned up here to pay me this last honour as a professional skier."

The large turnout was also an indication of the size of von Grünigen's popularity in the region.

Despite his successes on the international stage, the Swiss skier is one of the country's more modest stars and has never thought of moving from his home village of Schönried.

Strong ties

"I grew up here and still have strong ties to the region," von Grünigen explains. "It's a very beautiful place and I am always happy to return here after my trips away."

With traditional mountain food, long beer tables, casual dress and the accompaniments of a lively brass band, von Grünigen's retirement party seemed particularly in keeping with his own informal manner.

Not that there was any shortage of VIPs on hand, with the guest list reading like a who's who of Swiss skiing past and present.

The biggest draw for autograph hunters, though, was a Swede - with legendary champion Ingemar Stenmark travelling to Switzerland specially for the event.

A five-times world champion and double Olympic gold medal winner, Stenmark was a big role model for von Grünigen.

He is also the only man to have bettered von Grünigen's own haul of 23 World Cup wins in the giant slalom discipline.

Technique

"Two or three weeks ago I received my invitation to come here, and I was very honoured," Stenmark told swissinfo.

"I decided straight away to accept as I couldn't miss this opportunity. For me, Michael has the best technique of any giant slalom skier I have ever seen, and I have followed his whole career with great interest."

Von Grünigen's graceful technique has clearly won him admiration even among his fellow skiers.

"His skiing is unbelievable," reckons Swiss team veteran Paul Accola. "If you want to learn to ski well, you only have to look at how Mike does it."

Having himself only emerged from von Grünigen's shadow in recent seasons, new Swiss number one Didier Cuche is also a fan.

"There are only a couple of guys in the world with a style as smooth as Mike's, and that applies off the slope just as much as on it," cooments Cuche.

"He was always a great skier and a benchmark for the rest of us - if we ever managed to beat him in training then we knew that we would have a good chance of posting a fast time in the race itself."

Personality

But although von Grünigen's elegance and performances will be remembered for years to come, his colleagues and supporters say it's the man himself who they will miss most on the slopes.

"We're all here tonight because of Mike the person," von Grünigen's manager Johny Wyssmüller told swissinfo as the celebrations and speeches drew to a close.

"There are about 500 people in his fan club and Mike knows virtually all of them.

"If he sees someone he recognises he'll always make time for them, even when he's busy training. It's more like a family than a fan club and tonight gives us a chance to say goodbye to one of the world's top sportsmen."

After dedicating most of his life so far to professional sport, von Grünigen says he plans to spend some decent time with his family in the weeks and months to come before taking up a position with the ski manufacturer, Fischer.

But even if the Swiss star is now set to vanish from the international limelight, his fans in Schönried can at least rely on von Grünigen being a regular part of village life in the years ahead.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Gstaad

Von Grünigen

Von Grünigen was born on April 11, 1969.
He was raised by two elder sisters, after being orphaned at the age of nine.
Having been put on skis at 11 months, he completed his first World Cup race in 1989.
He went on to win 23 World Cup races, four World Cup giant slalom titles, two world championship gold medals and an Olympic bronze.

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