I recently wrote this Racer Next Column for Ski Racing on Hermann Göllner. Before embarking on it I knew I’d feel incomplete trying to capture the Gestalt of Hermann in one piece. Two pieces is barely better, but at least this fills in some details, namely the two things I had always wondered about: what brought Hermann to the States from the Alps that seem to reside in his bones; and how does anyone get and stay that hard core and accomplished, at so many things? The answer to the first question was pretty easy. Hermann Göllner came to this country by way of an accident.
As a kid, Hermann followed in the tracks of many successful Austrian racers: Growing up in Zell Am See he and his two brothers learned to ski jump in their backyard. “When we got the word that if you ski raced you got free skiing, and could ride the lift up the hill, we all switched.” They had, as Hermann puts it, “no technique or thought,” but they also had no fear of air or speed. At six years old Hermann competed in his ski club’s annual talent search races and was invited to join the local racing team. As is still the case in Austria, this assured that everything, as he moved up the ranks, would be paid for by the club, the region or the National Team. Sweet deal.
The Accident: Training equally as hard on snow as in the gym, Hermann bolted through the ranks, winning the Austrian Junior Championships at age 16, and then the European Jr Championships DH. Then came the accident—the kind of accident we’ve all cringed at in grainy films from before the days of decent grooming, supportive boots and, most painfully, safety netting. While running DH he flew into a tree and broke both of the bones in both of his lower legs and an elbow.
His recovery took over a year, and it was during that time that the hard core gene, for which Hermann is revered, fully emerged. At the time, the guiding principle of rehab was “more is better,” and because his doctor prescribed hiking, Hermann immersed himself in another lifelong passion, instilled by his father—climbing. He put himself in extreme situations through which the only exit involved working through the pain. This included 16-hour mountain climbing traverses, with no prospect of helicopter rescue and no choice but to endure. This (for anyone who might have wondered while coughing up a lung in his slipstream), is what led to Hermann’s philosophy on training—”learn how to suffer a lot and eventually you get stronger.”
A mere two years later Hermann had regained his form and earned himself a spot on the Austrian B Team, neck and neck with the likes of Herbert Huber. But fate intervened with another accident.
The Accident, Part Deux: On the way home from a climbing trip in the Dolomites Hermann crashed his car, a car that he’d bought on credit. “When I figured out the financial loss I knew I had to earn money fast.” There was no way to do that in Austria so he went to the states to race on the pro tour. Just like that, the ski dream was over. The year was 1965.
“Was it like a knife in the heart?” I asked, even now not wanting to intrude on that particular brand of pain. Hermann just smiled lightly. “No, the knife came later, when Huber won a silver medal at the ‘68 Olympics.” His brother Gunther would be the Göllner to go to the Olympics, as a ski jumper for Germany. “It’s the luck of the draw,” Hermann muses.
Austria’s loss was America’s gain, as Hermann landed in Killington and worked three jobs—teaching ski school, coaching the Rutland ski team and doing acrobatic ski demonstrations—while racing on the Pro Tour, winning most everything. He earned his living, paid off the car, climbed in the Alps all summer and still came back to the States with $10 in his pocket.
Flipping out: In 1968 Hermann went to Colorado to make ski movies featuring the most enduring images of him: performing double then triple flips on skis; displaying his self-invented Moebius flip; and, most memorably, launching a front layout into Corbett’s Couloir. This iconic opening scene of “Ski The Outer Limits” (it also kicks off the action in Jackson Hole’s 50th Anniversary movie, “Born to Be Wild.”) was a rare instance of Hermann skiing in to an accident. To catch a window of perfect light he had to take off with too much speed, and was fortunate not to be badly hurt in the ensuing crash.
Most of Hermann’s jumps were successful because of his meticulous preparation, which included not only years jumping and racing on skis, but also 15 years of gymnastics training as a kid. “Whatever tricks I envisioned on snow I practiced on the trampoline or the high bar, with belts. Even when you can land a trick bullet proof in the gym, translating it to snow—with 210 cm skis on your feet—is an entirely new environment.”
Fulfilling the Dream: Despite continued success on the Pro Tour, Hermann’s legacy in ski racing lay not in fulfilling his own ski racing dream but in being a key factor in so many others. He inspired kids towards personal bests at Killington and Bromley, then at Stratton Mountain School when it opened, on the US Ski Team and then back at Stratton, during an era he remembers most fondly in a uniquely Hermann way.
“One spring, after months driving the vans, I was way behind the kids on run to Bald Mountain Dam and thought, ‘This has to change.’” He spent the entire summer vacation armed with a copy of Eat to Win and the USST Nordic training program which alternated between hard (6 hour) and easy (4 hour) training days. By the time the kids came back to school he could lead them, lungs bursting, up any mountain while calmly chatting alongside. But, Hermann maintains, and this is key in his approach, “I didn’t push them. It was their own competitiveness.”
Retirement…NOT: After moving west for stints at Squaw, Aspen and Sugar Bowl Hermann is still private coaching, and trying his best to quit, but unable to get away from a lifelong compulsion towards continuous improvement, be it in equipment, fitness or technique. (Go ahead—get him started on rotation!)
A lifetime of perfectionism notwithstanding, his main goal is simplicity. “We have to keep skiing as simple as possible. With kids, establishing the environment and the program is most important. Wherever the environment—mountain, peers, courses, freeskiing—isn’t teaching enough you can supplement with coaching.”
I get the answer to my second question, the one about how he could be so hard core for so long, when he talks about what all successful athletes have in common. “You need to live the sport, not just participate in it. For a period of time at least it becomes your life.” Otherwise, he reasons, the logistics of getting the needed mileage and support are impossible. “Every sport is a metaphor for life. Our destiny is to push ourselves as far as we can. It’s in our DNA, the fabric of who we are.”