Olympic champion, two-time second-place World Championship finisher, 19-time World Cup winner, and three-time overall giant slalom World Cup champion: Viktoria Rebensburg. Athlete and superwoman. In a written interview covering racing, mental strength, success and failure.
“MISFORTUNATE HAS ALLOWED ME TO MATURE INTO A BETTER ATHLETE”
What is needed to become a top athlete?
In first order, of course, natural talent. After that, then, discipline and self-motivation plus ambition and the correct self-perception. And naturally also some luck that you don’t have any serious injuries while training or competing. In addition to that, the general conditions regarding the selected sport could also have an influence. For example, the fact for me that I grew up right alongside ski runs.
What distinguishes a top athlete?
I think that every athlete who has made it to the international stage needs resilience in particular together with talent. At the start, that is needed to get to that point and then later to conquer the daily hurdles needed to continue to remain successful. Considering the high stress and risks that our sport carries with it, luck also plays a role to remain free from serious injuries.
What are your personal strengths?
As strange as it sounds: my gut instinct. My ski style differentiates itself a little from my competition in that I ski very intuitively. I would label myself an “instinct” skier. I perceive a lot from what comes back from the snow or from my skis. I then adapt my handling accordingly or my edge pressure or the friction that is created when the ski edge is pressed into the snow. Off the slopes, my gut instinct on the other hand has strengthened my self-confidence in some sense – in that I have always tried to go my own way and not just to accept all decisions passively.
How tough is the business of “ski racing”?
That is difficult to answer. The demands on athletes are mentally and physically very intense to withstand the pressure of the industry and to brave the dangers on the slopes. Certainly, there is enormous pressure to perform and also huge competitive situation since there is a large difference between prize and sponsor money. Only the very top athletes can live well from their income.
What are the great things and what is the dark side of ski racing?
Really interesting is that I have traveled the entire world and in doing so have had the chance to get to know new places, cultures and people. In particular I was always thrilled that usually I was surrounded by gorgeous outdoor settings and the mountains. What is challenging is the dependence on weather as well as the long, sometimes stressful travel and distances. I can’t begin to count how much training and how many races have been cancelled or postponed in my career. In any case, a lot.
Where and how have you been able to refill your energy reserves again?
During the season, it was always difficult to catch a proper breath. You are always fully under some kind of pressure which you also in part create yourself. It is essential now and again to simply tune out. To this end, my home with family and friends have always helped a lot. They have always helped me up off the ground and given me energy for the times to come.
What role does mental training play in ski racing?
Mental training plays a huge role in ski racing since it can be decisive in drops or making the cut, victory or defeat and, in the most extreme cases, also good health or injury.
Which factors are critical to finding mental strength each day?
Belief in the approach, focus and concentration, and carrying over results into competition. A process that becomes increasingly independent and influences itself. It’s all about conquering anxieties and doubt, increasing self-confidence, and improving concentration and focus. All of that helps achieve success and success then validates the approach. And when it comes to a long career, experience and routine of course also play a part - the more situations I have experienced and processed, the larger my inner reservoir becomes which help me increase my daily mental strength.
How does someone train mental strength?
Both with a trainer and alone. The trainer as expert first analyzes your deficits and attempts to reveal the basis for possible weaknesses and behavioral errors using discussions and observation. Then, you work together on strategies that can help counter them. That could be motivational exercises, visualizations, focus training, or self-reflection, or the change of a simple habit. The longer the expert and athlete work on the areas needed, the clearer it all becomes, and the athlete can largely complete training successfully on his or her own.
Mentally absolutely strong or physically in top condition. What is more important and in what way does one influence the other?
I think that one cannot fully assess that since both influence each other. When I feel good and know that I’m in top conditioning, it’s also easier mentally. In order to achieve the optimum result, both must click. I can be mentally extremely strong and thus for that moment increase my performance ability. For example, assuming all is otherwise similar, if on a second run the time differences are really slim, that’s where mental strength can influence the final placement. That only works though to a certain degree after which physical deficits cannot be compensated any more by mental strength. It is hardly possible to be in top physical condition the entire season because there is often a small cold or some unexpected travel stress with lack of sleep. Then you aren’t 100 percent. And the farther you edge from your own performance ability, the more your mental strength reaches its limits.
Failure in a race. At the next race back at the starting line. How do you forget about poor results?
The best is to concentrate totally on the next race. Changing the past is not possible any more anyway. But you can prevail in the next one.
How does someone handle criticism/poor influences? How close does someone let criticism come?
Ignoring criticism is in my opinion not really a solution. And really not totally possible. Criticism comes at unexpected times and in some cases batters your psyche significantly. And that is definitely normal. It is essential to differentiate what kind of criticism you are dealing with. If it’s about my athletic performance, I personally sit up and take notice – I listen to it and consider how I can find improvements in appropriate situations. In other situations, certain criticism is not justified. In those cases, you shouldn’t start looking for those errors. Everything demands years of practice, and it helps to discuss the validity of statements with family, trainers or others you trust. It is difficult to make a overall statement about the best approach in handling criticism. Most meaningful is I think in the end that you feel good in your own skin.
What was personally your biggest achievement in your career?
It is difficult to limit my career to achievements. When I became Olympic champion, I was very young and was at the start of my career. It was my first true triumph. That’s why my wins in the giant slalom World Cup, my World Championship Silver Medal in Vail and Are, as well as my bronze medal from Sotschi mean so much to me – because they are proof that I have rightly belonged over the years of my career to the world’s best. My last victory in Garmisch – under quite difficult conditions dare I say – also has huge importance because I was often in the downhill “almost” there. Prior to the season, it was my big goal to also stand on top in the downhill. With that I can then say that I have won a race in all three disciplines in which I started. Too, that’s why this victory will always be a strong memory.
What was your biggest disappointment?
That was possibly the 2017 World Championships in St. Moritz. As a big medal hopeful, I was fourth in the Super G and didn’t make the cut in the giant slalom. At the time, that was perhaps my biggest disappointment.
How do you process disappointments, and how do you find your old strength again?
Today, I know that misfortune has allowed me to mature into a better athlete because afterward I have scrutinized my entire training and race plans even more critically. What can I do better in strength training? With gear? In training on the glacier? In racing? One often says you learn the most by failing – that most certainly held true for me in that case.
How difficult was it to end your racing career?
After 13 professional years that is certainly a tough decision that I didn’t make spontaneously from one day to the next. In the weeks prior I thought hard of course about stepping back and talked over the idea with my family. In the process the decision gained perspective and it was still difficult but on the other hand unavoidable.
How long does one think about such a decision before making it?
I have always said that three factors had to come into play: That I was having fun, that I was physically well, and that I was successful. After my knee injury last February in Garmisch I began to notice for the first time when skiing that something was missing. I was no longer at the top level because I had later starting positions and knew that I could win the race. So, week after week this decision mellowed and aged a bit until I was certain. I really am going to stop. I am quitting!
What are you looking forward to the most?
This winter I can finally do what I never had time for. I have already gotten together with many old acquaintances and friends, have done lots of hiking tours or ones on my bike in the mountains – without the need to pay attention that my sports might suffer from it. I really am extremely enjoying that I have freedom, that I can do everything but must not do anything.
What are your biggest dreams/plans after the end of your career?
I will most certainly in the future would like to have my own home where I’m from in Tegernsee. I have roots there and feel at home. So, my professional future will likely also be there. I am looking at various opportunities and at how I can orient myself in the future professionally. And other than that, there are some things for which I now have more time – for example, my project “Fit and Active.” I developed it in partnership with the Bavaria Ministry of State and the Berchtesgaden Country Dairy. We are looking to offer events at schools. It’s about children being active, eating nutritiously, and learning to successfully overcome difficult situations and challenges on their own.
FROM PARIS VIA NEW YORK TO MALTERS
Lydia has already been in many places in the world. And not just for a fun vacation: She studied in Paris for three years. Modeling and fashion design. Then came the move to New York. To one of the largest fashion metropolises in the world. Her goal: Establish her own fashion label. Become a star designer. Indeed, it turned out a little differently.
Lydia sits on a large white desk. She is concentrating. Very hard. Now and again she glances at the color chart that is lying next to her. Sometimes she changes pencils. Sometimes she takes a glance at some material. But basically, her gaze practically never wavers from the large white paper lying in front of her. She is drawing ski jackets. With meticulous precision and yet huge creativity. Use different color combinations, draw different designs and details, sketch shading, put aside various patterns. Many ideas are put down on paper, and each is itself quite unique, yet they all match and coordinate with each other. “I am sketching different ideas for the 2022-23 Women’s Collection. To do that, I’m orienting myself using different future apparel trends,” she says.
Women’s Collection? 2022-2023? Lydia means the future ski apparel collection from Stöckli. That’s because Lydia has been working for nearly a year at the Swiss ski brand in Malters. There, she develops and designs the entire ski apparel collection by Stöckli, together with her colleagues and mentor. Lydia focuses on the women’s side, her associate on the Men’s Collection. Together, the two of them work on 140 pieces. And the number just gets bigger every year.
Product developer at Stöckli in Malters outside of Lucerne? What happen to the runways in New York? “I gave that up,” she says, adding, “it didn’t really work out, and sometimes you just have to be realistic. I learned a lot in New York, a huge amount. I would not be where I am today if it hadn’t been for New York. The experiences were grand.” Then she smiles. Beams, in fact. Just like whenever she says something. “New York demanded a lot from me. The city is a dream, but very superficial. One day, they think you are the best; on the next, nobody is interested in you anymore. But New York taught me never to give up. If you fall down, then you stand up again, and fight on. Over and over. That’s why I also found my place, and here I have the best job in the whole world,” she says.
As a product developer at Stöckli. But what does that really mean? “We are a small team with three people, and we do nearly everything ourselves. We analyze trends, define our target demographic, make up mood boards, draw sketches, determine the materials needed, pick colors, develop detailed worksheets (sewing instructions) for production, approve prototypes, pass on changes to production, perform quality controls, enter negotiations, and are responsible for marketing.” Really, a big challenge and an important job duty. Because in the end much here is what decides the success or failure of an entire, new collection. Does the target demographic like the apparel – both in Switzerland and internationally? Does it match the ski collection? Does it hold its own with the big competitors of brands? Question after question. And no matter what, the same always holds true: Never lose your focus designing.
“That is very important,” says Lydia. “When we design a collection, we quickly have more than 100 ideas. Perhaps 1,000 inspirations from fashion books and fashion weeks in Milan, New York, Paris, or London. And 1,000 different influences and opinions from various people. That never stops during the entire development process. You can always tweak something or change something. Make an eyelet different, a button a little smaller, a zipper a little bigger. The hardest part is to make a decision and then say, OK, that’s it now. That’s what we do.” That assumes enormous discipline with boundless creativity. And of course, conviction and courage. That is what Lydia learned in New York. As a designer, one must stand behind an apparel collection 100%, invest yourself in it, and have arguments ready to say why you did a certain thing or how you did something. Because really in the end there are unlimited other possibilities. Fashion is always a matter of taste, something we feel inside. A cut or color selected doesn’t please everybody. That’s normal and we need to be able to sidestep that. Otherwise, we just lose ourselves. And our identity. That’s why we put our focus totally on the opinions and needs of our target group. This is for us our first priority and why we give our all everyday – to offer our customers a ski apparel collection of the highest standards.”
WITHOUT HER OUR SKIS WOULDN’T HAVE COLOR
It was all a colorful frenzy: Blue, red, green, yellow, white, black, orange. Colors everywhere. Colors wherever you looked. Even on the walls, on the floor, and on clothes. That wasn’t all. Innumerable topsheets were everywhere. Topsheets from skis with all their various designs. In part, complete; in part, lacking a few colors. In part, not printed at all. Day after day, this is where innumerable ski models get their colors. At peak times, perhaps 1,500 pairs a week. Responsible for it all is Tamara, division manager for silk screening.
There are of course endless numbers of different colors. You can see this from the moment you glance at all the different color charts and fans Tamara has lying all over the table. Blue isn’t for example just simply blue. One is more like violet, the other a bit green-ish. And yet another is so dark that it nearly looks black. There are sometimes such minute differences between the individual swatches, and yet when it comes to skis, design so critical. Because not every color looks good on a ski, let alone one in the snow. And not every color can be printed on a ski.
And that’s where Tamara comes in. “One of my duties is to make color and design ideas suitable for printing. That means the right color for a ski must sometimes first be discovered. I mix and match, test and try out until I finally find the suitable colors that coordinate with each other the best and come as close to the design idea as possible.”
Making design ideas suitable for printing? That means too of course working on the topsheets for future skis? “Yes, precisely. Often here in silk screening we are already working on the designs for ski models that are going to be on the market two years later. Then it means testing, trying and developing different variations. At the same time, printing current ski designs and then those that will be at retail in the next year. We always have three entire collections here in silk screening,so to speak, and are already thinking on the fourth.”
That demands time. Because silk screening means that per color there is always only one screen. If a ski has five colors – which it often has – then five different screens are necessary. “When it comes to a screen, imagine something like a stencil. This is laid on the topsheet, so the color only is transferred to certain places on the topsheet in the process. Then the colors have to dry until the next color can be laid down. “24 hours per color,” Tamara says. Meaning for a topsheet with five colors it can take a total of five days until the topsheet is totally done with printing.
A long time! “Yes,” Tamara says. She adds, “Actually it really takes much longer if you consider the entire development process of a design. Because that too demands time and creativity. And often during the development process you have 1,000 ideas – but only one can in the end become reality. Testing, trying, and then with our designer colors, thinking it through, tinkering a bit, and I offer my advice. Giving skis a little nuance. That’s what I like to do. I like that part. Not only that. You are also pretty proud when a ski model is at retail for which you worked out yourself a color or design element.”
Indeed, the work by Tamara als division manager for silk screening includes much more than just “trying out and testing.” Human resources planning, employee meetings, purchasing colors, creating and cleaning screens, printing topsheets, coordination and partnership with graphics, and sometimes just a few other tasks that she also has to take care. Being creative and nevertheless keeping an eye on the production schedule. Tamara is an artist and organizer all at the same time. No easy task. Because creativity assumes time and production volume, too. A bit of a catch-22.
But Tamara says, “Somehow, it always works out. I have a fantastic team. We all support each other. Everybody is ready to help the other. Not a single one is a lone wolf. And I think that helps enormously.” Why does this work out so well? “I think that a manager has a lot of influence on how a team operates and whether collaboration works well. However you are yourself is how a team will be. I treat every one precisely as I would like to be treated. I believe that is essential.”
Listening to Tamara as she talks about her work and her team, you notice that she is quite at ease. She’s found her niche. When she talks about colors, designs and patterns, she just beams. Indeed you notice that colors are really her thing. Her passion. “Colors have always been a part of my life. I have been lending skis their color now at Stöckli for six years. I have been painting just for me my entire life. Hard to believe, then, that my entire home is totally white, right?” She grins, sits down at her desk and opens a color fan.
SKI BUILDER, WOMAN OF ACTION, SUPERWOMAN
Everything is moving pretty hectically. Layer after layer is laid down and assembled. A total of eight layers, plus two edges, plus all the small details. Everything by hand, it goes without saying. And all the workers have their places, their duties, and know precisely what has to be done. And in the middle of all this: Karin. Department manager for ski assembly and pressing at Stöckli.
“I like it when everything goes as planned, when it all progresses well, and when we can put the pedal to the medal. Thumb-twiddling is just not my thing,” says Karin. She stands at Work Station No. 2 and is in the process of assembling a ski. If you watch her closely, everything is moving very quickly. It all looks so simple, as if she has never done anything else in her life. She knows exactly what layers come in what order, how the materials must be positioned and how they must be handled. She can do it with her eyes closed. Doesn’t matter which ski model. In doing so, her hand movements are quite individual, and the others don’t do it the same way. “Building a ski is like a signature. Every single one is unique. And that’s how it is with ski building. You orient yourself quite individually to the technology. When I teach the craft to a new colleague, the others know precisely who showed the person the building process.” How does that happen? “Difficult to say, perhaps because I’ve already worked here for 12 years. Over the years, you acquire a very personal technique.
Twelve years at Stoeckli and always the department manager? “No, no. It didn’t come about that I took over the department until a bit later. I started as a ski builder. Originally, I was trained in agricultural as a farmer. I was in my probationary period and after a few days the then-production director came over to me and said, good, you can stay. We sealed it at the time with a handshake.
Karin is not an office person. She’s a woman of action. “I like to work with materials, to create something and, at the end, to have a final product in my hands. Then you know what you did. And the best part of being in this department? We are right at the heart of ski manufacturing. Here is where a ski is created. The other departments in manufacturing often work on just one part of a ski. We bring together all the parts and finish the ski. From zero to 100, so to speak. I like that.”
And how did it come about at the end to move from ski builder to department head? “I always liked building skis, I was doing it for seven years. But over time that got a little boring for me. I like having a challenge in my life and wanted more happenstance. My then-boss left, and I had to take over.” At the time, no simple job. “I worked 12 hours and more everyday, had to teach myself quite a bit, had to figure out a lot on my own. Had to know everything better. Had to assert myself.”
Indeed, that was worth it. Today Karin quite successfully directs a department of 15 people. She always has an overview, knows what’s going on. Always has the answer. “The great thing is that I was basically a product of this department, so to speak. I have learned so much and experienced so much, was always confronted with many situations, and grew stronger from that. This department is now my baby. I don’t see myself as an employee, but rather I see this department more as my own shop. I am responsible for it.” Karin then adds, “It is like my own farm, and these are all my sheep. You have to take care of them everyday.”
Department director, ski builder and presser, as well as manager of 15 employees? That’s a lot. But what does that really mean? “Normally I spend less time assembling as I am doing right now. But this is the busy time of the year. Now, we are assembling up to 534 skis a day, including racing skis for the World Cup. A stressful phase, and when colleagues can’t come to work it can be pretty critical. Because winter is creeping closer. So that’s why I’m also doing my part. But I do it gladly. I am of course also a part of the team.”
When Karin isn’t building skis, then she’s taking care of managerial duties: human resources planning, employee meetings, quality control ,and auditing. She is the first point-of-contact for any issues, meets with those responsible for ski development, and offers feedback about new materials and technology ideas. “I can now judge quite well whether new materials will work or not in the skis, or whether they will function properly together with current materials.”
And about managing 15 employees? “That is a lot of fun for me. I have a fantastic team. In my department there are associates from eight different countries. That makes it pretty exciting and, at the same time, also a bit of a challenge. Because people just have different personalities, and on the other hand here we also have the differences in mentality and language.”
Of course, Karin is not the only one fully passionately engaged in her department. Her entire team, in fact – doesn’t matter whether the person has ever stood on skis or not. “Here, everyone is very proud to be building such a product. For example, we even have someone from Sri Lanka. Every year, he flies home to visit his family. Then I get photos of him sitting with his family in their small home outfitted in the thickest Stöckli pullover when it’s 30 degrees Celsius with extreme humidity. He would just not ever take off his pullover,” relates Karin, laughing a bit. She then adds, “It makes no difference in our department whether somebody skis, what’s essential is that the person loves to do each day what is being done. Meaning, building skis.”
When you listen to Karin, you notice that she is very proud of her team. She talks about individual colleagues, and she appears to know each one very well and looks on each well. Like a farmer with his sheep. Of course she could behave differently, she says. “But when somebody knows he’s made a mistake, it serves nobody any good if I call him out. I offer a critique, of course. But I always try to do this in a motivating manner.”
That’s Karin. Motivating and always seeing the positive. Always making the best of something. No matter what the situation. And doing this day after day. Truly a superwoman.