Switzerland’s Alpine skiers launched their assault on the World Cup this weekend on the Rettenbach glacier in Austria.
Both the women’s and men’s teams will be hoping to make up for last season’s disastrous campaign, which saw Switzerland finish as the fourth-ranked nation.
For the fifth year in a row, the World Cup is kicking off in Sölden, with two giant slaloms on the programme.
This time a year ago, the Swiss set off with high hopes of celebrating the Swiss Ski Federation’s centenary in style. But things went downhill right from the start.
Despite being a reference in the skiing world, Switzerland only secured one podium finish by Christmas.
It was one of the worst starts to a World Cup season and prompted a period of national mourning over the death of Swiss skiing.
Even by the end of the season, the Swiss had little to show for their efforts: two wins from 74 races, a couple of seconds and a handful of third-place finishes.
“Last season was a catastrophe,” admitted sporting director Gian Gilli. “At every race, I had Swiss skiing fans coming up to me and telling me I should send the whole team home.”
But the results shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise, since Swiss performances have been on the decline since the glory days of the 1980s when Switzerland topped the world rankings eight years out of nine.
The high point was the World Championships in Crans-Montana in 1987, when the country’s skiers won almost every title up for grabs.
Maria Walliser, one of Switzerland’s most successful skiers, insists the current squad must remain positive.
“Switzerland still has good skiers who can get results,” she told swissinfo. “What happened when I was competing [in the 1980s] along with Michela Figini, Erika Hess, Vreni Schneider, Pirmin Zurbriggen or Peter Müller was exceptional.”
Walliser, a three-time world champion and triple Olympic medal-winner, says what the national team lacks is enough leaders.
“When there is more than one champion in a team, it’s highly motivating,” she added. “Today, there is less talent around, but we just have to live with that.”
Two new head coaches have been drafted in to oversee the Swiss team this season.
Marie-Theres Nadig, one of Switzerland’s all-time greats, is taking over the women from Angelo Maina; while Martin Rufener, who has spent the past ten years working as a helicopter pilot, will be looking after the men.
After last season’s very ordinary results, both are circumspect about their athletes’ prospects.
“We are aiming for places in the top ten,” they both said.
Switzerland does, however, have skiers who can shine on the slopes. Sonja Nef, Nadia Styger, Didier Cuche, Ambrosi Hoffmann and Bruno Kernen have all shown that they can be first past the post on race day.
But the senior members of the team are mostly in their 30s, and there is little young talent coming through the ranks. The Swiss Ski Federation has, however, begun to address this problem.
“There was certainly too much complacency back in the time when we were winning everything,” conceded Gilli.
“We concentrated too much on the skiers who had already come through, and missed a real opportunity to develop skiing among young teenagers.”
The federation is now investing SFr3 million ($2.5 million) a year in its youth programme.
The first World Cup races usually offer an indication of where a skier is in terms of preparation and form, but Walliser says they shouldn’t be seen as a litmus test for the whole year.
“We shouldn’t expect too much from Sölden,” she told swissinfo. “Only two giant slaloms are taking place this weekend.”
The first significant conclusions will probably be drawn only after the World Cup finishes its North American leg in December.
But the ultimate goal this season remains the World Championships, which are being held in the Italian resort of Bormio at the end of January.
swissinfo, Mathias Froidevaux
Swiss results from Sölden:
Men's Giant Slalom:
9th: (joint) Didier Cuche and Austria's Andreas Schifferer.
20th: Ambrosi Hoffmann
Women's Giant Slalom:
12th: Sonia Nef
Men’s team: Didier Cuche, Ambrosi Hoffmann, Bruno Kernen, Silvan Zurbriggen and Tobias Grünenfelder.
Women’s team: Nadia Styger, Fränzi Aufdenblatten and Sylviane Berthod.
Paul Accola, Didier Défago, Sonja Nef and Marlies Oester now belong to the second tier of the national squad.
The development team has another 14 up-and-coming skiers in its ranks.
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