Coberger's slalom glory remains Winter peak

KEVIN TUTTY
Last updated 05:00 29/06/2012
Annelise Coberger
Photosport
DAY OF GLORY: Annelise Coberger during the Albertiville Olympics.

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Four months ago, on a Monday to be precise, the 20-year anniversary of an historic moment in New Zealand sport passed with only cursory acknowledgement from the athlete concerned.

On February 20, 1992, Christchurch skier Annelise Coberger became New Zealand's first and still only Winter Olympics medallist when she finished second in the slalom in Albertville, France.

For more than a decade afterwards she was the only athlete from the southern hemisphere to have won a medal of any colour at a Winter Games.

Several Australians have now achieved that feat.

But Coberger, who stills lives in Christchurch with her husband and two young daughters, was a true trailblazer in world sport.

Reason, one might think, to reflect on the achievement, perhaps even seize a Monday morning with a tad more spring in one's step?

"I didn't celebrate the anniversary," she told The Press in an interview this month to mark her triumph. "In fact it was other people who reminded me that it was happening. It's part of who I am but it's history to me."

If that sounds modest, even a tad flippant, then you'd be right.

That's Coberger for you.

Although she acknowledges her feat was, and remains, special in New Zealand's sporting history (albeit begrudgingly – "It was a standout event that hasn't been repeated, which is unfortunate"), she was reluctant to discuss that day on the slopes of Meribel, mainly, she said, because she felt her recall was lacking.

She's not alone.

Few will recall that she was only 20 at the time and had ascended to the skiing world stage just that season with a series of outstanding performances in the first part of the northern hemisphere season.

The following year she came within one one-hundredth of a second of winning the overall World Cup women's slalom title, which would have made her the best slalom skier in the world in the 1992-93 season.

Two years after that, at 23, Coberger retired, just when she should have been nearing her prime.

Had she grown up in Europe and been part of one of the huge ski programmes of the leading European countries, staying on the circuit would have been much easier.

But as a lone skier out of a small southern hemisphere nation, she faced a relentless battle to find money. Although she did have some loyal sponsors, the funding factor prompted her to bow out at the top after 10 years of travelling overseas to northern hemisphere winters.

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"I first went to a training camp at Mammoth Mountain in the United States when I was 13. I did that for three years and went to Europe for the first time when I was 16.

"Even though I was young I was ready to retire and I never had any regrets about retiring."

The travel, long periods away from home and the struggle for funding had taken their toll.

"I had far less funding than the other racers out there. There was me and three others who I paid for – my coach and manager Robert Zallman, a ski serviceman and an assistant coach.

"If I wanted a break for six months there was no national programme to get me back to the top. It was either carry on or stop.

"If I had taken a break I might have lost sponsors."

After winning the silver medal Coberger received a $20,000 grant from the New Zealand Sports Foundation, the forerunner to Sparc and Sport New Zealand. It was certainly a help.

Things got so tight at one stage that Coberger considered skiing for Germany, which had a much larger programme and funding (Coberger's grandfather was German).

Fortunately for New Zealand, Coberger stayed loyal and although she flew under the radar in New Zealand in the build-up to the Albertville Games, her form at the start of the 1991-92 northern season made pundits take notice.

A series of top five placings in World Cup and Europa Cup races during her first season on the World Cup circuit prompted English bookmakers Ladbrokes to install her as the second favourite to win the gold medal.

Her performances had also caught the eye of some of the international media, so to avoid the spotlight Coberger attended the opening ceremony and then travelled back to her base at St Anton in Austria, returning to Albertville "five or six days" before the slalom, which was near the end of the Olympic programme.

"When we got back there I avoided the village and stayed at a little chalet up on the hill and treated the race just like another World Cup."

Coberger said she recalled two things about race day.

"I remember I had a massive sleep that night. Being right in the middle of the mountain with no other houses around it was quiet as anything at night, a benefit of being away from the noise of the Olympic Village.

"The chalet worker asked me how I slept and if I dreamt of anything. I said `no I didn't dream anything' and she said `That's good. It means you had a good sleep'. That was a good start to the day."

The second thing she remembers clearly is sitting in a cafeteria after the first run of the slalom and stewing over her performance.

"I was too conservative and didn't give it everything. I hadn't taken any risks and I was really unhappy, so on the second run it was all or nothing. There was no point in coming eighth.

"I risked everything and tried to get down there as fast as possible and it paid off.

"Sometimes it is easier if you are out of the top five after the first run and you let it rip on the second.

"As soon as I pushed off from the starting gate I just went for it until the last gate. Even if there was a tricky gate, I was going for it."

Coberger had to wait for seven other runners to follow. Only one, Petra Kronberger of Austria, beat Coberger's combined time.

She had the silver medal and the best time on the second run by a massive half a second.

She had nailed it. She had made sporting history. So how did she feel?

"I was just relieved because I wanted to win a medal."

The following year was another standout for Coberger.

She had a series of seconds and thirds in World Cup races and finished in the top five in every race except one. In the last race she had the opportunity to win the overall slalom title, decided on a series of races during the season.

"I finished fourth in that last race, one one-hundredth of a second off third which would have given me enough points to win the World Cup title.

"It was a real disappointment not to win the overall title. I took it really badly."

In early 1994 Coberger attended her second Olympics, at Lillehammer in Norway, as the International Olympic Committee moved the Winter Games out of the same year as the Summer Olympics.

Coberger didn't finish that race and the following year she was gone.

These days she works part-time for the police and her skiing is recreational, with husband Sonny Taite and daughters Zoe, 10, and Zara, eight.

"The kids enjoy it and they're good wee skiers."

No surprises there.

"They haven't done any gate training yet but we might try and introduce a bit this year.

"It just helps them to be better skiers.

"But there will be no pressure for them to be competitive skiers."

- The Press

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