A REBEL WITH A CAUSE: MARC GIRARDELLI
ALWAYS A REBEL, ALWAYS A RISK TAKER, LEGENDARY WORLD CUP SKI RACER MARC GIRARDELLI HAS STILL GOT THE “ATTACK! ATTACK! ATTACK!” ATTITUDE HIS FATHER INSTILLED IN HIM ALL THOSE YEARS AGO.
Marc Girardelli: Americans love their mavericks: the Founding Fathers, John Brown, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Bode Miller—free thinkers, all—gutsy non-conformists who bucked the system to make it better. Marc Girardelli isn’t American but he’s been a maverick his entire life, and he’s loved for it by throngs of U.S. fans who get what it means to be an individual.
“I swear, I think I have more fans in the U.S. than I do in Europe,” Girardelli says from Beaver Creek’s Park Hyatt Hotel, where the 52-year-old World Cup legend has set up shop as global ambassador for Bomber Skis during the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. He’s consistently surrounded by fans, well-wishers and star-struck fashionistas of a certain age.
These days he’s affable, patient, and quick with a smile and a joke. But back in the day, Marc Girardelli was a relentless, never-say-die competitor—the alpine world’s original rebel with a cause. His ski racing story is one of legend.
Here’s how the Marc Girardelli narrative goes: Boy from the flatlands of Austria exhibits an uncanny ability to ski fast down steep hills. Like another famous Austrian named Mozart, this young prodigy has a taskmaster parent convinced the best coach, manager, and advisor is the one you call “Dad.”
It’s not long before the boy and his dad clash with the local ski racing establishment. Father and son opt to go it alone. Strong words are exchanged. Accusations are made. Feelings are hurt. Austrian passports are swapped for Luxembourg passports. Success beyond anyone’s wildest dreams is achieved. Medals are won. History is made.
Eventually, injuries and fatigue kick in. Ski racing turns into a tumultuous life after ski racing. Mistakes are made. Fortunes are lost. Feelings are hurt. Relationships change.
Fast forward this tale to 2015. In the immortal words of The Bard, the story “ends well” for Marc Girardelli.
On paper, Girardelli’s numbers are staggering: 101 World Cup podiums (46 of them wins); 11 World Championship medals; two Olympic medals; and most impressive of all, five overall World Cup championship titles—the most by any male ski racer ever. With stats like these you’d think Girardelli would be as much of a god in his native Austria as he is in America. He is not.
In a nation where successful ski racers are revered—in some cases deified—in Austria, Girardelli is more enfant terrible than favorite son. Old wounds heal slowly in the mountains of Tirol and the cafés of Vienna. Swapping national flags and racing for Luxembourg—something Girardelli did on the advice of his father in 1976—is a first class no-no in Österreich.
What makes a man turn his back on his native homeland? And why choose tiny Luxembourg of all places?
Sitting comfortably in a deep, leather chair inside the swank Beaver Creek Park Hyatt’s billiard room, Girardelli himself tells the story:
“Most athletes in Austria go to sports academies for their schooling. The closest one for me was 90 minutes away from home. I would have had to stay there, away from home, all year long. I didn’t want to do this, and my parents didn’t want it either, so I went to a normal school.
“The problem was I began winning all the children’s races despite not going to the sports academies. It was a big question for the media: How is it possible for athletes trained by government-supported coaches to get beaten by a guy and his dad from a normal school outside their system?
“Then they started to cheat,” Girardelli continues. “They manipulated racing times. My parents tried working with the people running the ski racing system, but it didn’t work. So we changed ski federations.”
The Austrian maverick claims it was pure coincidence the Girardellis chose Luxembourg. “We were at an international ski race in St. Moritz and we ended up meeting the Luxembourg Ski Federation,” he says. “My dad asked them if they were interested. They said, ‘No problem.’ That was it. It could have been England, Belgium, Andorra or San Marino if Luxembourg had said no. It was purely random.”
“My dad and I were probably the best kind of coalition you could have… he was very strict and always fighting against the people who were against us.” —Marc Girardelli
The Girardelli father-son relationship was, by many accounts, akin to an army drill sergeant versus recruit. There are stories of marathon training sessions, pre-dawn wake-up calls, and of course, the infamous tale of a fire-breathing Helmut Girardelli raging at his son, smashing a ski pole over his back in public—all popular gossip in the ski racing community for decades.
Now, more than 30 years after the alleged ski pole attack, Marc Girardelli leans forward with a wry smile on his face, unbuckles his ski boots, and attempts to put these rumors to rest.
“This impression is a little wrong,” he insists. “First, I think my dad woke up early mainly because he wanted to smoke a cigarette early in the morning—not to wake me up, but to have a smoke. He never, ever once told me once that I had to go training. And he never hit me—the ski pole story is absolutely not true.”
Indeed, Girardelli claims the truth is exactly the opposite. “I’m the one who tried to hit someone with a pole once—a tourist who skied through my slalom training course. People may have thought it was my father who was doing the hitting, but it was me taking a swing at someone in Italy.”
This ferocious, symbiotic attitude quickly became standard operating procedure for both father and son on the White Circus. The strategy didn’t garner big results in the friend department during the Girardellis’ 18-year World Cup campaign, but it did capture a record five overall-championship crystal globes, triple‑digit podium finishes and eternal glory in a mythic, almost Homeric sense.
“My dad and I were probably the best kind of coalition you could have,” says the son. “He was very strict and always fighting against the people who were against us.”
Still, Marc Girardelli says his relationship with his father was never the same after his racing career ended in 1996. As with many retired athletes and coaches, the transition from sportsmen to civilians was bumpy.
“It was a big problem for me because I never had any idea of what I would do after my career ended. By 33-years-old, my body was worn out—completely dead. I had to stop because I could barely climb a flight of stairs. But I was absolutely not prepared (for retirement) and it was the same for my father—he wasn’t prepared either.”
With stats like these you’d think Girardelli would be as much of a god in his native Austria as he is in America. He is not .
The father-son duo’s first big business deal out of the retirement gate was to invest in an indoor ski center in Germany’s bleak, flat, very industrial Ruhr River valley. Opened in 2001, with the aim of bringing skiing to the masses, the multi-million dollar Bottrop Alpincenter was the ultimate labor of love for the kid from the flatlands who made it big in the mountains—a way to give back and make some money.
But the scheme went downhill fast for the father and son team so used to winning.
“You’ll never achieve great success over a long period of time if you don’t go over the limits.” —Marc Girardelli
The Alpincenter, which is still in operation today, didn’t bring the Girardellis the dividends they had hoped for and nearly bankrupted the young entrepreneur. After pulling out of the ski center, Girardelli’s business relationship with his father was dead. What was their personal relationship after the mishap? Barely on life support.
“If you ask me what I’d do differently now in my life, I’d put my money into Microsoft instead of that indoor ski center,” Girardelli says. “It was an emotional business decision because I’m so passionate about skiing but it was too big for us. I trusted my parents and my partners too much, but it was my mistake in the end; I accept the consequences.”
Those consequences are great. “My dad is 75 now, he’s in good health, but we don’t see each other very often… and he still smokes,” Girardelli adds with perfect comedic timing.
A wizard during his racing career with a magic touch in all five disciplines on the World Cup circuit, these days Marc Girardelli’s life off the hill is still about multi-tasking. When he’s not running his event planning and skiwear businesses or working with Mentor International—an NGO that promotes youth drug prevention—the married father of four is busy publishing the European sports magazine Alpin Aktuell. He’s also a spokesman for BEMER, a vascular therapy machine that improves blood circulation to promote healing and regeneration. What’s more, Girardelli passionately endorses Bomber, a high-end ski manufacturer.
A rebel and risk taker for life, Girardelli has no regrets about the “Attack! Attack! Attack!” attitude his father instilled in him. He says he’s never really given up, pointing to relentlessness as the only path to success.
“You’ll never achieve great success over a long period of time if you don’t go over the limits,” Girardelli says. “As long as you stay in your safe zone, you’ll never be a winning type like Bode Miller or Marcel Hirscher who are always on the edge. That is the philosophy of my sport and you can’t just switch it off when you retire… I don’t want to be someone who is afraid of risking something, I want to take the chance if I believe in it. If works out, good. If it doesn’t, another door will open.”