Bib number 1.
The Face de Bellevarde slope, in Val d’Isere, would be the stage upon which the gold medal downhill winner would be crowned at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. A difficult, technically demanding course, like a snake crouching among the pines, ready to strike. Big turns, jumps, bumps and crossovers, almost an extra-large Super G suited to more technical skiers than those with speed on their side. Even though, to be honest, all skiers are fast.
Bib number 1 was worn by my Dad, a skier for whom technique had never been his strong point.
He was a big, chunky, powerful athlete who excelled on the high-speed sections but, despite being on his best form, this did not seem a race most suited to his skills.
He made a few minor mistakes here and there.
He ended on 1 minute, 50 seconds and 37 hundredths.
No one would have thought this a good enough time but, being the first off can be either a curse or a blessing, depending on the situation.
Dad won the gold medal, beating a Frenchman, Frank Picard, by 5 hundredths of a second, and another Austrian, Gunther Mader, by 10 hundredths of a second. An overall gap of 15 hundredths.
In one mere clap of the hands, all three medals were won.
At the time Dad was 24 years old, just about the same age as me today.
However, just knowing my surname doesn’t mean knowing me.
I am more than my surname, but still I would never want to be more than that, because, while growing up, it was very lucky for me.
Ortlieb is not a very common surname, and those who don’t know I’m following in my father’s footsteps discover it when they ask the second question and this means great things are expected of me.
Those lessons I guard most jealously are the simplest ones my Dad taught me, rather than mere tales of glory.
He taught me to always keep smiling, even when I’m upset, because if you can convince your muscles to produce a smile when you’re feeling sad, you’ll feel better straight away.
When I was little it was easy for him to cheer me up, when things weren’t going well. When I let rip with a furious bout of crying, Dad would put his arms round me, saying: crying doesn’t change anything, it’s no use at all.
That’s how I learnt not to do it anymore.
Indeed, it’s true to say that skiing is an odd sport.
You start off with lots of others, often a whole load of others, but the piste is different for everyone.
The sunlight, the snow and the holes are all different depending on the vagaries of the weather and on the bib number you have chosen or that fate has chosen for you.
There’s only one winner.
Three people are very happy.
And everyone risks hurting themself.
Great mental strength is needed to stay afloat and reach the most challenging finishing lines.
Often that strength is not enough nor even is the support of a family who knows that world, because it is almost impossible to meet a skier who has not experienced the pain of an injury and the effort needed to get over it.
In a very short time, I ended up under the knife twelve times and, just like all the others, I’m still here, focussing on the next race, finding the right balance between psychological daring and physical preparation.
Sometimes when I’m driving, especially on the motorway, and I see motorbikes speeding past, I instinctively feel very afraid for those bikers.
I think about the risk they’re running, protected only by a helmet.
Then it dawns on me that they’re doing the same speed as we do, supported by our own mechanical parts: legs, screws and plates.
But when you’re on the snow you hardly even notice what you’re doing every day, and you are so used to it you forget how complicated it is.
You think that an injury is always caused by your error.
A glaring error and a spectacular fall.
But it’s not always like that.
All I needed was a routine fall, nothing special, to shatter my knee to pieces because the pressure exerted by every centimetre of the piste on our body has the potential to break it.
So then, smile.
Smiling is always a good way of coming to terms with all this, with the pressure, with the risks, with your opponents and with all the travelling, because the life of a skier, even a good one who is also lucky, is always a collection of a few days of glory within a season of stressful days.
So, on those stressful days it is vital to learn to appreciate each small step you take.
Sometimes winning is a goal within reach, other times just managing to walk without crutches is equally important.
All this and a lot more are what both my Dad and time have taught me.
I’ve learnt how to concentrate on my skis, and nothing but my skis, when I’m on the piste. Initially I was better in training than when actually competing, because as soon as I put my bib on, I started worrying what people were thinking about me and my race.
As I grew up, I learnt I could no longer practise all the disciplines I had in the years of the European Cup. When, coming back after an injury, I realised that the bends of the slalom caused me more pain that the soft lines of a downhill piste, I began to concentrate on speed.
To be honest, I have always been in love with speed.
I was just waiting for the right opportunity to invite speed to be my companion.
I learnt to carve out some space for study and to get a degree. For a skier the window of opportunity has a very small opening and when I finish racing, I don’t just want to find any old job, but one I enjoy.
The only way to do this was to continue studying, even if I had to do it in the evening, on flights, or when the others were finding the time to enjoy a social life.
I learnt never to be afraid on my skis. Even as a little girl, when I stepped out of my front door and I was literally already on the slope, ready to follow and copy my older sister.
While Mum worried about me, Dad loved the show and we went crazy having fun, something I still do.
I have learnt so many things and I hope to learn many more in the future. I have come to understand that you can still dream big, because dreaming big can only hurt those who don’t do it, and if you aren’t strong enough to set a goal, you’ll never be able to attain it.
My grandparents built a hotel at the foot of a beautiful mountain, right opposite the slopes. In the best family tradition, this hotel was passed on to my Dad, just as a passion for the snow and skiing had been.
In the hotel foyer there is a big rock from Albertville with a display case showing off the gold medal he won for the downhill.
I am more than my surname, but still I would never want to be more than that, because, while growing up, it was very lucky for me. One day I would really love to bring home a rock and a medal for myself and find a place for them next to Dad’s. I could then teach what I have learnt to the next Ortlieb generation.