Jean-Claude Killy was at the pinnacle of his illustrious career, Rossignol Strato Skis were soaring in popularity and Bollé Lunasport Spartan Fly sunglasses were the hottest new fashion trend the last time a Swiss male skier won a World Cup slalom title. Giavanoli Dumeng notched victories in Kitzbuehel and Wengen along the way to a crystal globe in 1968, narrowly defeating Killy two months after the Frenchman’s triple gold-medal performance at the Grenoble Winter Olympics.
Now, more than 50 years later, Roman Zenhaeusern, 28, and teammate Daniel Yule, 27, have emerged as legitimate contenders, possessing the talent and experience to match Dumeng’s accomplishment and end the lengthy drought. The Swiss duo finished third and fourth in the World Cup slalom standings in each of the previous two seasons, with Yule leading the charge.
“It’s crazy that the Swiss haven’t had a slalom team for many years and now we have a pretty good team with Daniel and other guys skiing fast,” Zenhaeusern says, while at a pre-season training camp in Livigno, Italy. “I think that’s the secret of our strong team – we push each other to the top.
“We also have a good training (coaching) staff. For us, we take it race by race and we don’t think about the globe.”
A towering presence on skis at six-feet, eight-inches (2.02m), Zenhaeusern is not your prototypical slalom specialist. Despite his imposing size and long frame, Zenhaeusern is quick and nimble on his feet, powerful yet precise.
“There were a lot of people who never thought I would reach success in slalom because people think that slalom skiers are small and not tall,” says Zenhaeusern.
“My slogan has always been that nothing is impossible.”
Matteo Joris, the former coach of the Italian Europa Cup squad, has made an impact developing and coaching Zenhaeusern and the Swiss slalom team since 2013.
“He has really improved a lot in the steeps over the last two years,” Joris says of Zenhaeusern. “Now, he is stable and when he is pushing he can takes lines that no one else can. With this height, you can ski totally different.”
By comparison, Zenhaeusern is ten inches taller than the reigning World Cup slalom champion Henrik Kristoffersen and stands an entire foot above the retired six-time winner Marcel Hirscher.
Zenhaeusern says that balance and equilibrium are essential to his success.
“I train lots of balance stuff – the balance both in front and behind is really important for me, while also keeping my upper body stable,” he explains. “The training exercises I do are a little bit different than the other guys.
“I’m really proud that I can show the world that you can ski slalom fast being two meters.”
“The new generation is tall slalom skiers,” Joris declares, noting that his team is comprised of four men 1.85m or taller. “The big guys can go straight at the gates, but the only problem can be their balance.”
Entering his ninth season on tour, Zenhaeusern has attained three World Cup victories – one in slalom and two in parallel slalom. The slalom triumph came in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia in March 2019. The Swiss skier from Bürchen, in the southern Swiss canton of Valais, has amassed six top-three podium finishes.
With the season opening slalom scheduled for Alta Badia, Italy on Dec. 21, followed by another race in Madonna di Campiglio the next day, Zenhaeusern will enter the starthouse as no stranger to ending Swiss dry spells. At the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics, he raced to a surprising silver medal, after favorites Hirscher and Kristoffersen crashed out, finishing 0.34 seconds behind Sweden’s Andre Myhrer. It was the best result by a Swiss men’s slalom skier at the Olympics since Edy Reinalter won a gold medal at St. Moritz 1948.
Zenhaeusern became only the third Swiss male slalom skier to medal at the Games after Reinalter and Jacques Luethy, who took bronze in Lake Placid 1980.
The lanky and determined racer added a gold medal two days later as he and Swiss teammates defeated rival Austria in the final of the inaugural Olympic Alpine Team Event.
“I never imagined I would come back with two Olympic medals from PyeongChang,” says Zenhaeusern, a two-time Olympian. “It was also impressive for me that I reached my first slalom podium at the Olympic Games.”
As Zenhaeusern and Yule have solidified their places among the world’s best in slalom, the duo is generating newfound interest in the discipline, in a country steeped in downhill tradition.
“I hope that we make slalom more popular once again because in the past everyone is only speaking about downhill,” Zenhaeusern says about his Alpine-crazed country. “Already now we can see that young children also want to ski slalom and not only downhill.
“I think we are changing this period in Switzerland a little bit.”
“It’s amazing to see a lot of young guys skiing slalom now because of Ramon and Daniel – we need this for our future,” Joris adds.
Zenhaeusern took second in the Zagreb slalom last season, in addition to fourth and fifth place results at the classic Swiss race venues of Adelboden and Wengen. Yule raced to an emotional victory on home snow, thrilling 20,000 fans in Adelboden, and also won in Kitzbuehel and Madonna di Campiglio.
As Yule strives to duplicate his performance in Adelboden on Jan. 10, both will take a crack at ending yet another Swiss slalom slump in Wengen on Jan. 17. The last Swiss to stand atop the podium at the prestigious Wengen slalom was Joel Gaspoz in 1987.
Yule finished the 2019-20 coronavirus shortened season just 57 points behind globe winner Kristoffersen, while Zenhaeusern was 229 points off the pace.
Whether it be Yule or Zenhaeusern – amid the uncertainty that hangs over this season considering the current health crisis – could 2021 finally be the year for a Swiss breakthrough in the most technical of disciplines?
“I’m pretty happy with my career at the moment, (I’ve reached) a lot of goals already,” Zenhaeusern said. “I’ll try my best for the future, but I think the most important thing is to stay healthy, have fun and then after all these results, maybe a globe will come to Switzerland.”
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