The Greatest

Ingemar Stenmark is Elan’s favorite son. He was still a young up-and-comer when his eyes first set on a pair of Elan skis. When he put them on as an unknown teenager, he never took them off again. It soon became clear that Ingemar was a very special man. His talent was clearly reflected in his piercing gaze. He did not speak much. He let his results do the talking, and slowly but surely Ingemar Stenmark became a legend.

He won 86 World Cup races while his closest rival “only” 54.

He won in the World Cup, at the Olympic Games, and World Championships. He won medals - mostly gold, crystal globes - big and small. His winning streaks were the stuff of legend. In the 1978/79 season he won all ten giant slalom races, and if we include the last win of the previous and first three wins of the following season, he won fourteen races in a row. Stenmark set records that have stood unchallenged for more than a quarter of the century and will most likely remain unbeaten forever. He won 86 World Cup races while his closest rivals, Hermann Maier and Alberto Tomba, “only” won 54 and 50. His competitors were in awe of the great man and often driven to despair by his performances. At a Kitzbühel slalom race, Stenmark beat second place finisher Phil Mahre by over three seconds and at a giant slalom in Jasna he beat Bojan Križaj by an amazing four seconds.

All his competitors could do is to start joking amongst themselves and calculating their times from the second placed racer. Skiing officials changed the rulebooks because of Stenmark, afraid that the World Cup would become a one-man spectacle for the next ten years. He was, however, completely calm and composed in the face of the changes: “It doesn’t matter if you win the World Cup three, four, five or ten times.” Stenmark’s long time ski technician and close friend Jure Vogelnik calculated that Stenmark stood on the podium as many as a hundred and sixty-five times. This means that he spent almost half a year of his career just stepping on and off the winners’ podium every day. Ingemar Stenmark was to skiing what Michael Jordan is to basketball, Wayne Gretzky to hockey, Michael Phelps to swimming, Roger Federer to tennis and Michael Schumacher to motorsport.

Stenmark skied on Elan skis throughout his entire career. Chance? Fate? Perhaps. Fact? Definitely! And it was at a time when Elan was located right smack on the wrong side of the iron curtain. Representatives of alpine skiing powerhouses could not fathom why the world’s best skier uses skis stamped “Made in Yugoslavia”. Once, representatives of an Austrian ski manufacturer tried to quite aggressively convince him to join their ranks.

“Do you even know how much better you could ski on our skis,” they asked him.

He quickly shut them up, saying: “Could I be better than first?”

He stayed with Elan. Always. From the beginning until the end.

Do you remember the moment when you got the first pair of Elan skis?

Elan was already well established as a brand in Sweden in the end of the sixties. I remember when my friend Stig Strand and I were invited as thirteen-year-old boys to train with the Swedish youth team. During our training camp in the north of Sweden, we visited a small ski fair where Elan also had a stand. Elan’s representative offered us their skis at a very good price. I think they were 30 kroner, which was quite cheap at the time. Stig and I bought three pairs each.

What about the skis you used to achieve your first win?

If I’m not mistaken, I won in Madonna di Campiglio in 1974 on Impuls skis. They were the legendary red, blue and white ones.

Those skis were followed by the legendary Uniline series, which could nowadays be called the first all around ski. Is it true that you skied an entire season on a single pair of skis?

Yes, that is true. The edges were getting very thin towards the end of the season. At the time, edges were not made of a single part, but consisted of several shorter pieces. It often happened that I had to repair them with a hammer between the two runs. It is also true that later in my career I often used slalom skis for giant slalom races as well, the greater responsiveness suited me better.

All I ever wanted was the best pair of skis for my way of skiing, and Elan could make them.

Jure Vogelnik said that you were very attached to certain pairs of skis, particularly those you won on. Supposedly he had to come up with all sorts of tricks to repair them and keep them in working order?

The belief at the time was that skis become good after they were used for a while. It was as if after a certain time all the layers of materials merged into a perfectly balanced whole. Not unlike cars in those days, which had to be gently run in for the first few thousand kilometres with finesse. When it became clear which sets of skis worked for me, I only wanted to ski on those. I became very attached to them.

In the mid nineties, just a few years after the end of your career, Elan brought perhaps its greatest innovation to market - the SCX skis. They changed skiing and started the carving revolution. Bojan Križaj compared them to a four wheel drive car. How would you describe your feelings when you tried them?

Even during my career I always strived towards the perfect turn, especially in the giant slalom. You could say I was carving in a way with those two metre plus skis, of course when snow conditions allowed it. I used the tails of the skis and when I managed to bend them, the turns looked much like modern carving. And then the SCX skis came, making true carving possible. I thought they were fantastic. At the time I wished that Elan’s engineers would have come across the solution some ten years earlier, so that I could race on such skis. Carving skis made skiing simpler and more fun, both at the competitive and the amateur level.

It did not go on just for a season or two, but for a decade and a half. How did you manage to maintain your motivation at such a high level?

Well, I have to admit I was not as motivated during the last five seasons. But before that, I always set myself very high goals. I wanted to win races and I wanted to win with as high a margin as possible. Above all, I thought a lot about skiing. For me, it was also a mental game.

Which were you favorite venues?

I enjoyed the classic venues such as Madona di Campiglio, Adelboden, Wengen, Kitzbühel. I really liked racing at home in Sweden, but also in Kranjska Gora where the numerous fans made me feel at home.