On February 21, 1980, in Lake Placid, New York, Hanni Wenzel spoke to reporters about Liechtenstein, the tiny country nestled between Switzerland and Austria that then had a population of 25,000. They wanted to know what was so special about this little mountain country that was winning alpine skiing medals at an astonishing rate.
Wenzel had just won the country’s first Olympic gold medal thanks to two near-perfect runs in the giant slalom, and won a silver earlier in the week in the downhill. She won the country’s first-ever Olympic medal, a bronze in the slalom, in 1976. Her brother Andreas also won a silver medal in the giant slalom in Lake Placid. Together, the Wenzels would go on to win six Olympic medals in total, ushering in a decade of dominance by Liechtenstein athletes: The small nation won nine Olympic medals from 1976 to 1988, all in alpine skiing.
In front of reporters on that day in 1980, Wenzel explained the success of her home country like this: “We’re individualists,” she said, “very strong willed.”
The dominance that spanned 12 years would run dry after 1988, however. Liechtenstein — the only country that has a winter medal, but no hardware from the Summer Games — is still searching for a 10th medal 30 years later.
The country has just one athlete participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea — a 28-year-old competing in the women’s super-G, downhill, and giant slalom — but expectations are high. Not only is Tina Weirather a favorite to win a medal in the super-G, her specialty, she comes from skiing royalty: She’s Hanni Wenzel’s daughter and Andreas Wenzel’s niece. Her father, Harti Weirather, was a world champion skier for Switzerland. Tina Weirather carries the weight of Liechtenstein not just because of her talent, but also her pedigree.
Weirather hasn’t had much luck at the games — her best finish is 33rd when she was 16 in 2006, and she missed 2010 and 2014 because of injury. But she’s racing well in 2018 and medal hopes are rising again, just like they do every time the Olympics come around. The people of Liechtenstein, now a country of 38,000, adore their sports stars, and Weirather, who is recognized in stores and on the streets, is a tabloid darling.
Weirather, 28, is welcoming that pressure this time around, even though she admits she has struggled with it before. While it may seem like an advantage to have competed on the world’s biggest stage at such a young age, Weirather thinks going to the Games at 16 might have been a detriment to her career.
“Everyone wanted me to gain experience,” Weirather tells me at the end of 2017. “But you can go to the Olympics to go there, but you can also go to win a medal.” Weirather’s objective at 16 was to see what the Olympics were like. She had been urged to do it by her family and coaches, as part of her grooming to become one of Liechtenstein’s next great skiers. She wishes that she hadn’t hurried. “It would have been better to wait a little longer, and to get really hungry for a medal.”
Twelve years later, she’s feeling much more comfortable.
When she first started skiing, Weirather liked swooshing down the mountain, carving her way around trees, and jumping moguls without ski poles. Her parents put her on skis when she was two-and-a-half, and within a year she was taking on the steepest runs she could find. Going fast was all the ski prodigy wanted, and she didn’t need poles to plow through powder at full speed.
But by the time she was eight she also wanted to race — she told anyone who would ask that she wanted to be a “ski racer” when she grew up — which meant she had to use poles. Weirather and her mother worked out a deal: In order to compete, she had to practice with poles on at least three runs per day.
Nearly every day, however, after hours of going up and down the slopes at the Malbun ski resort, Liechtenstein’s only resort, Weirather’s mother would come out of the family’s home at the bottom of the mountain to find her without poles. At her mom’s urging, Weirather, her face red and windswept, would grab the poles and head back up the hill.
Weirather was beating her older brother by the time she was 10, and racing on the professional skiing circuit by the time she was 15.
Today, Weirather’s mother doesn’t have to remind her to use ski poles. In fact, Wenzel is rarely involved in her training at all. Wenzel can barely watch her daughter race because of nerves. Weirather does talk with her mom about her storied career and how she was able to win three medals in Lake Placid. However, Weirather says she isn’t trying to replicate her mother’s career.
Weirather doesn’t want to downplay what her parents did for her skiing career. “My mom taught me everything from the beginning somehow,” she says. Even something as simple as taking a deep breath before competition. “It’s really nothing special, but if you learn it from the beginning it just becomes a part of you. Some people who have parents with no relation to sports at all. So, I guess I had an advantage there.”
Even so, Weirather has dealt with the struggles that often accompany expectation. Heading into the 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Weirather knew she needed a breakthrough. She had finished on the podium at multiple world cup competitions throughout her career, but her highest finish at the world championships, which are held on odd-numbered years, was fourth. Heading into an Olympic year, it was even more critical, she knew, to perform at her best on that stage. “It was important for me to know personally that I can function when the going gets rough,” she says.
In competition, she stays relaxed by avoiding repetitiveness. While many of her competitors have their routine down to an exact science, Weirather tries to go with the flow. Sometimes in the moments before she enters the starting gates she runs around and does a few leg swings and pushups. Sometimes she feels ready and doesn’t do anything at all but take a deep breath.
She doesn’t remember exactly what she did before the super-G at the 2017 world championships last February, just that she had one of the best races of her life on one of the sport’s biggest stages: Weirather finished second to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria to win her first international medal. “When I won that silver medal,” she says, “it let me know that I can perform really well under pressure.”
She went on to win the world cup final in Aspen in March and finish the season ranked No. 1 in the world in the super-G.
Then, she changed everything.
Despite the big wins to end the 2017 season, Weirather hired a new coach and changed her equipment from Atomic to Head just 10 months before the start of the Olympics. She admits that it might have been too brash of a move, but it was something she felt she needed. In her Instagram post announcing the change, she wrote it was a combination of testing the skis and her gut that made her decide to make the sweeping change. After missing the 2014 Games, she felt she had to go into 2018 with a fresh perspective, even if the 2017 season ended on a high note.
“I knew I had to do a bit of a reset for my head,” she says. “Because every time I thought about the Olympics, I was like, ‘Ooph.’ I can’t go there and feel like, ‘What’s gonna happen this time?’
In 2007, Switzerland invaded Liechtenstein. A group of 170 Swiss soldiers were on a training mission on a rainy day along the mountainous border between the two countries, and the squadron wandered about a mile over the border into Liechtenstein. It wasn’t hostile, but it was enough for Swiss authorities to inform Liechtenstein that its border had been breached.
Liechtenstein didn’t care. And even if it did, it didn’t have an army to fight back with.
“Who could cross the border except for the Swiss?” a Liechtenstein government spokeswoman told ABC News when the news of the “invasion” spread. “We are surrounded by neutral countries, so that leaves us in a comfortable position.”
The 62-square mile, German-speaking country is in a comfortable position. The unemployment rate sat at a prosperous 2.3 percent in 2016, and the capital of Valduz is filled with businesses and five-star restaurants.
Even so, Liechtenstein is far from a world power. It certainly isn’t taken seriously in the world of sports, despite the desires of its proud citizens.
Soccer is extremely popular, says Florian Hepberger, a sportswriter for the Liechtensteiner Volksblatt, one of Liechtenstein’s two newspapers. The soccer team, however, has never qualified for the World Cup and might be best known for an 11-1 loss to Macedonia in a 1996 World Cup Qualifier.
With Weirather, Liechtenstein has a possible world-beater. And while Hepberger can’t go so far as to say exactly how the country would celebrate if Weirather wins a medal, he told me via email that the size of the country has an effect on how people watch the games.
Hepberger, 24, started writing about sports when he was 15 and covering his local soccer club. He has covered Weirather’s career since 2016, and told me there’s a small-town feel to all of Liechtenstein. It’s relaxed, he says: One uses polite greetings only if they’re speaking to the royal family — for everyone else don’t bother with “Mr.” or “Mrs.”, simply the familiar “you.” Living in such a small place makes it hard for big secrets to stay secrets — “Everybody knows everything,” Hepberger says.
An insular culture creates pride. Marco Büchel, aka Büxi, competed in the Olympics six times for Liechtenstein — he was not one of the medal winners — from 1992 to 2010. Suzi LeVine, the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein from 2014-17, told me Büchel is a national hero — she was even thrilled to share a photo she had taken with the star as proof.
Hepberger says Weirather’s injuries in 2010 and 2014 have tamped down expectations slightly, but the excitement is picking up as the games near. Her best chance at a medal is in the super-G, which, like the downhill, is a speed event (the downhill is the fastest, and Weirather could sneak onto the podium if she has a great run), in which she’ll go against U.S. star Lindsey Vonn. In the downhill and giant slalom, she’ll have perhaps an even tougher challenge, taking on American Mikaela Shiffrin.
Weirather has embraced the pressure. “Last year when I won that silver medal,” she says, “I found everyone was really proud and supportive. I think the Olympics would be an even bigger deal.”
Two days after Thanksgiving, Weirather finished 22nd in the giant slalom in Killington. It was one of her first races of the 2017-18 season, and it wasn’t a good day.
But Weirather didn’t let it bring her down; she knew it would take time to adjust to the equipment and coaching changes. She turned things around the next time she hit the slopes, winning the super-G in Lake Louise, Canada, on Dec. 3. Then she finished on the podium in St. Moritz and Val-d’lsère, France, on Dec. 9 and 17, respectively. A broken hand kept her out of events in early January, but she finished second to Vonn in the Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy world cup downhill on Jan. 20.
One thing Weirather hasn’t changed is her attitude. She knows she’s at her best when she’s relaxed. And even though she’s aware of the extra pressure from her small mountain country, her hopes for a medal keep amplifying. She’s heading into PyeongChang without that dreaded “Ooph” feeling.
“I think you have to take it for what it is,” Weirather says of the Olympics. “It can be the race of your life — the moment of your life. But you also have to not freak out about it.”
There are no plans to treat the Olympics differently. She’ll still do whatever feels right before she heads down the mountain in South Korea — whether it’s pumping out pushups or taking a deep breath, like her mother taught her. Weirather is following in her family’s footsteps, but she’s doing it her way, like the kid who barreled down the slope without poles. The pressure, familial expectations, and nerves are all just part of it.
Weirather feels good. In fact, she’s looking forward to the Olympics so much that she’s keeping a diary of the year. She’s calling it “Road to PyeongChang.” It’s helping, she says, to write all her thoughts down. She’s hoping that one day she’ll be able to look back on everything she did and thought in the lead up to an Olympic medal and what could be the start of a legacy.