Ingemar Stenmark won a record 86 World Cup racesduring his 15-year career. He dominated the slalom and giant slalom courses, winning titles in both events for seven consecutive years, from 1975 to 1981. A three-time winner of the overall World Cup, Stenmark also has two Olympic and three World Championship gold medals. Known as the King of Slalom because of his unmatched technical skiing that took him through the gates with very little upper body movement, he was also known as the Silent Swede because of his famously stoic and taciturn personality.
Ingemar Stenmark was born on March 18, 1956, in Josesjo, Sweden, in the Swedish Lapland, near the Norwegian border. He was raised in the nearby small town of Tarnaby, just 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle. During the summer, the sun hardly set, and in the winter, hardly
rose. Stenmark spent the first six years of his life with his grandparents on their farm outside of Tarnaby before moving into town. It was a lonely, isolated existence with few children. His father, Erik Stenmark, an avid skier who had placed as high as fifth in a national slalom event, was a road construction worker and bulldozer operator who also owned three ski lifts. Encouraged and trained by his father, Stenmark began to ski at the age of five, using simple toe-strap bindings. Painfully shy and reserved, he began to ski because it was something he could do alone. Also, skiing was one of the few available activities in the community with a population of just 700.
In a region known to produce top-notched cross country skiers, Stenmark was drawn to the nearby 600-foot hill called Laxtjallet, meaning Salmon Mountain, that provided 2,000-foot slope, making it good only for slalom skiing. Because the course was lighted, Stenmark could ski after school during the cold winter months, when daylight dwindled quickly. Stenmark won his first race when he was seven and the following year won his first national competition in the slalom. In 1965 he qualified for an annual international race held in Italy, where he placed fourteen in his first attempt at the giant slalom. Stoic in personality, Stenmark was a perfectionist who scorned defeat. As a child he would sob in anger if he lost a race. Stenmark began training with the Swiss junior national team when he was thirteen years old.
Stenmark was an indifferent student, who didn't particularly enjoy school. After completing the required nine years of basic schooling, Stenmark decided to forego secondary school, partly because the nearest gymnasium, or school, was 150 miles away and partly because he wanted to concentrate on his skiing. "School was a drag," he later told Newsweek. "I couldn't develop as a skier and be a good student at the same time. I decided to do one thing well." Stenmark was also acutely aware that the Swiss national team, which had been a consistent and abysmal failure, had disbanded to use its limited resources to help support a group of fourteen- to sixteen-year-old trainees, including Stenmark.
During his first year with the junior national team, Stenmark trained for the giant slalom on the steeper, more challenging courses in Italy. His best finishes during the 1972-73 Swedish junior national season were fourth and fifth place. During the 1973-74 season Stenmark made remarkable progress. He began to understand that he could win with more consistency if he did not take unnecessary daredevil risks that often resulted in a fall. Although he did not win any junior World Cup races, he place second twice in the slalom and earned a third and fourth place in the giant slalom. The crowning moment came during the European junior championships, where he won gold in the giant slalom.
|1956||Born in Josesjo, Sweden; raised in nearby Tarnaby|
|1961||Begins skiing at the age of five|
|1969||Begins training with the Swiss national junior team|
|1973||Completes formal schooling|
|1974||Joins European race circuit as a member of the Swiss national team; wins first World Cup event in December|
|1976||Competes in first Olympics|
|1978||International Skiing Association alters rules to include downhill in overall World Cup points to limit Stenmark's overwhelming dominance|
|1979||Suffers a severe concussion on a downhill training run|
|1980||Sweeps the slalom and giant slalom events at the Olympic Games|
|1984||Daughter Nathalie is born; marries Ann Ufhagen; deemed ineligible for Olympics due to professional endorsement contracts|
|1988||Appears in last Olympics|
King of Slalom
In 1974 Stenmark, at the age of seventeen, joined the European racing circuit. In his first World Cup event in March of 1974, Stenmark placed second in the slalom. On December 17, 1974 he earned his first World Cup victory on the slalom course at Madonna di Campiglio, Italy. He was soon challenging Italy's Gustavo Thoeni for the World Cup title but was edged out by Thoeni, 250 points to 245 points. The following season Stenmark surpassed Thoeni to win his first overall World Cup in 1976, thus beginning his decade-long reign of dominance in the slalom and giant slalom. He was heralded as a hero in Sweden, and Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf received Stenmark in a private audience and awarded him with a special gold medal, the highest honor bestowed on a Swedish citizen. Stenmark's first appearance in the Olympics in 1976, however, proved rather disappointing. Going in as the favorite for the gold in at least one, if not both, slalom events, he fell in the slalom and only managed a bronze medal in the giant slalom.
In 1977 and 1978, Stenmark won two more World Cup titles. He also won gold medals in both the slalom and giant slalom at the 1978 World Championships in Garmisch. During the 1978-79 season he won a total of 13 slalom and giant slalom races, breaking the previous record of 12 set by renowned skier Jean-Claude Killy . In fact, Stenmark outscored the remainder of the field so badly during the 1978-79 season that he had the World Cup title locked up in January, two months before the season's end. In an effort to balance the playing field, the International Skiing Association altered its point system so that the overall World Cup ranking was based on points not only from the slalom and giant slalom, but also the downhill, an event in which Stenmark had never competed. As a result, even though he won both the slalom and giant slalom in 1979, he placed fifth in the overall World Cup standings due to his lack of points from downhill races.
Following the 1978-79 season, after fulfilling his mandatory three-month obligation to the Swedish army, Stenmark decided to prepare for the downhill so that he could once again be competitive for the World Cup title. During a training run on the Italian Alps in September 1979 he hit a compression at a high rate of speed, was buffeted by the wind, and flew wildly out of control. Rushed to a hospital via helicopter, Stenmark was diagnosed with a severe concussion and remained in the hospital three weeks. After he recuperated, he competed in a downhill race in January 1980, in which he finished thirty-four among thirty-nine finishers. Following that event, he decided to put away his downhill skis and focus on the slalom and giant slalom. At the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York, Stenmark took gold medals in both the slalom and giant slalom. During the 1979-80 World Cup competition, he won ten races and once again took both the slalom and giant slalom titles, but finished second in overall World Cup points.
Twilight of His Career
During the 1980s the reign of the King of Slalom drew slowly to a close. In 1981 Stenmark once again took the slalom and the giant slalom titles. Winning ten races, he lost out on the World Cup by six points to Phil Mahre . The following year Stenmark won gold in the slalom at the World Championship in Schladming and took silver in the giant slalom. Although he failed to retain both the slalom and giant slalom World Cup event titles, he still finished second in overall World Cup points. In 1983 he won his last slalom title and in 1984 he won his last giant slalom title. Both years he once again finished second in the World Cup standings. Stenmark's numerous endorsement contracts gave him professional status and made him ineligible for 1984 Olympic Games.
In 1984, for the first time since he was a small child, Stenmark's focus shifted from skiing. In April 1984 his daughter Nathalie was born, and in September 1984 Stenmark married his longtime live-in girlfriend Ann Ufhagen. Although he had lost some of his snap and speed in his dynamically precise skiing, Stenmark, who had achieved just about all there was to achieve, continued to ski because he still enjoyed it, but winning became a lesser priority. After rearranging his endorsement contracts, Stenmark was allowed to participate in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, but his best finish was fifth in the slalom.
Related Biography: Skier Gustavo Thoeni
Gustavo Thoeni was a member of the Italian national ski team from 1968 to 1980. Like Stenmark, Thoeni won the overall World Cup three consecutive years, from 1971 to 1973. Finishing second in 1974, he edged by the younger Stenmark to take his fourth World Cup title in 1975. He ranked first or second in the slalom and giant slalom every year from 1970 to 1974, and remained one of Stenmark's top competitors up to 1977.
Thoeni won three Olympic medals, including a gold in the giant slalom in 1972 and silver medals in the slalom both in 1972 and 1976. He swept the 1974 World Championships, taking gold in both the slalom and giant slalom. After retiring from competition in 1980, he turned to coaching. From 1989 to 1996 he worked with Alberto Tomba. Currently he is the head coach of the Italian national men's team.
Awards and Accomplishments
|Stenmark won the individual event titles in slalom and giant slalom seven consecutive years, from 1975 to 1981. He won the slalom again in 1983 and the giant slalom again in 1984.|
|1976||Wins Olympic bronze medal in the giant slalom|
|1976-78||Three time winner of overall World Cup|
|1978||Wins gold medals in both the slalom and giant slalom at the World Championships|
|1980||Wins Olympic gold medals in both slalom and giant slalom|
|1982||Wins gold medal in the slalom and silver medal in the giant slalom at World Championships|
On March 12, 1989, Stenmark retired from skiing with a record 86 World Cup victories, consisting of 46 giant slaloms and 40 slaloms. That the second-best win record—belonging to Pirmin Zurbriggen—is 31 World Cup wins is a testament to the Silent Swede's total domination. Stenmark, who divorced in 1988 and remains unmarried, stays out of the public eye. He splits his time between Monte Carlo and Sweden and works for a Japanese sports clothing company. Despite detesting his celebrity status and all but shunning media attention throughout his career, Stenmark became an international star and a nation hero. He is arguably the best skier of all time.
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Sketch by Kari Bethel