I’m taking a moment here to remember someone who, to me, was a legend.
I heard this morning that Koni Rupprechter had passed away. Koni was the head Womens DH coach for the US Ski Team from 87-89 or so. He was as unconventional as he was classically Austrian. Smoking, drinking, charming—the man knew how to balance intensity and levity. What he was best at, however, was working the room. He knew how to read the circumstances and personalities of everyone at the table, knew who needed a laugh and who needed a kick in the butt and somehow found a way to make each of us truly believe we were the next greatest thing.
From what I heard Michel Rudigoz had a similar knack, knowing when to yell and when to send the girls shopping. This is a skill you can only wield effectively when you are secure in what you know, and respect those in your care. When Rudigoz retired after the ‘84 Olympics his women’s team was legendary. A few years and many coaches later, Koni and Dave Gavett inherited a very different team. They were tasked with taking a bunch of mostly rookies who had been constantly reminded of who we weren’t, and making us into World Cup Downhillers.
When Koni was harsh Dave would pick us up off the ground. When Dave gave us too much food for thought Koni sent us out for endurance runs until our minds were clear and our legs felt like they’d fall off. As one teammate recalled today, “Koni and Dave were my favorite duo of coaches on the circuit.” Each was secure enough in his own role, to let the other play his, and together they gave us our dignity. They made us step outside our portrait of inadequacy and flip it the bird. (I’m seeing you now, Koni). One teammate echoed the sentiments of many when she said: “I know Koni coached us all equally but he made me feel like a winner and that translated into results. That was the best gift.” He essentially showed you how to “be the best you” long before Oprah made that a thing.
Often, he did it by being brutally honest. In his first season I ended up being the only one of the entire DH team he left behind on a December trip to Europe. I was so angry at him, and fully expected him to give me the icy shoulder, like I’d gotten every time I got cut. But instead he explained exactly what he wanted me to get done at home and what it would take to get to where I wanted to be. I wasn’t good enough right then, but he respected me enough to tell me why. When I earned my spot on his team that winter he was my biggest supporter. His faith in my abilities was so much bigger than my own that I couldn’t help but live up to it.
What I learned slowly since, and in big huge splashes today, was how many of my teammates felt the same way: special; uniquely capable of matching his expectations; within reach of greatness. That said, it was the unconventional part of Koni that really set him apart, his way of getting things done by any means. In Argentina our Downhill course was always the first one plowed out in the morning after a raging snowstorm. Before he moved on to the rest of the mountain the cat driver—sporting a US Ski Team vest and I suspect good-sized hangover—would give Koni a wink. Before the first World Cup when other teams were scrambling for snow in Europe, we were training alongside the Austrian men’s DH team. On Thanksgiving morning he rolled in with two huge turkeys the hoteliers had to learn how to cook and Austria’s closest thing to cranberries. We learned not to question how it all happened, but just to be glad that it did happen, and that we were his first priority.
This unconventional approach, the blurriness around the edges, was not sustainable in an organized structure, and to be sure it wasn’t right for everyone. Koni moved on from our team, and in a cruel twist I was the one who had to show up at his home in Austria and take the keys to his US Ski Team Subaru. It was one of my lowest moments, because I was taking so much more than a car. At the time it felt like I had no choice, but looking back now I know I did and I wish it had not been me.
Of course, he bounced back, coaching the Austrian stars on the Pro Tour. One time I called home from a particularly depressing trip in Europe, and Koni answered the phone. He was staying at my parents house during a pro race in Tahoe and feeling quite comfortable. When my parents got on the line (reluctantly I think, as they were having too much fun in the living room), I could hear the smiles in their voices and practically feel how much life pulsed through that house.
I preface this last part by the admission that I know very little about Koni’s life in the years after ski racing. I do know he struggled mightily with illness in recent years. I suspect the smoking and drinking that were so much part of his schtick didn’t help. It’s a bad combo. The last time I talked to him, already several years ago at this point, I was struck by the hint of loneliness behind his jovial demeanor. It seemed ironic for this man who brought us together as a team and instigated so many fun times. As we talked though, he worked his magic, remembering details of the good times we shared, and of course making me feel like those were the best memories of all.
Thinking back on what Koni was for many of us, on many different teams, fills me with gratitude. It reminds me that greatness is fragile, inspiration is divine and friendship is forever. Thank you Koni, and rest in the peace.