"There were eight athletes at the start that I had never previously defeated"
There were eight athletes at the start that I had never previously defeated. My only objective was to make it in the top ten", recalls the unforgettable Swiss athlete that in 1970 won the World Cup in Val Gardena. " That victory represented the most emotional moment in my sports career. I came from nowhere and was basically unknown but that victory changed everything".
The previous evening's snowfall changed everything and a lot of guesswork was going into the Saslong competition. The number 15 drawn by the 21 year old Swiss competitor was almost starting to look like an advantage.
Swiss favorites Jean Daniel Dätwyler and Söre Sprecher just couldn't live up to their promises made on the eve of the race. "The Swiss team's defeat seemed almost inevitable", recalls the champion. But then a stroke of genius, when the coach quickly scraped away every trace of wax from his skis, and that proved to be a winning move.
All of the sudden, Russi found two torpedos under his feet that hurled him at top speed around tight, irregular curves and over perilous jumps of the Saslong.
"My concentration was a mixture of anger and disappointment that brought forth an unexpected dose of strength and effort". Afterall, Russi had nothing to lose. Already at the first turns he found himself struggling against the course that had become unforgiving and devasted after the runs of previous competitors . Despite the conditions, the young Swiss competitor didn't let it get the best of him because, after all, he was used to racing on precarious slopes. "That was my specialty", he still recalls today.
Russi had just joined the the Swiss team and his future was looking bright, but a week before the big event, he fractured his hand. " That was when I thought it was all over, but I just couldn't let this golden opportunity slip through my fingers". He used a splint during training, but took it off right before the race. Racing in his condition proved to be extremely painful especially with the push off at the starting line.
Russi felt like he was flying while he was going over the "Camel Humps" in the aerodynamic schuss position. He realized that he was going much faster than during the practice runs and the crowd's behavior made him start to think that "something special" might be happening.
Once he crossed the finish line he heard his brother Manfred yell, "Best time!! ". " That marked a moment in my life that I'll never forget as long as I live", reminisces the 55 year old from Andermatt.
The Swiss skier was the last one to go down from the first group . Under normal conditions, this might have made him feel that success was just around the corner but the slope kept getting faster and faster , forcing him to grin and bear it. In the end all hell broke loose, and " I was no longer aware of what was going on around me, and I would have done anything they might have asked me to do".
His father was waiting for him at the arrival area, and with tears in his eyes, he congratulated his son and uttered something very meaningful, " Now you're going to step up to the podium, just don't forget to step down".
Russi was so overwhelmed by his victory that he forgot to loosen his boots that were cutting off his circulation. He only realized it a couple of hours later when he was being interviewed by an Austrian television network.
Afterwards he returned to his hotel in Selva where he expected to find " swarms of fans and endless celebrations", instead he was welcomed by nothing of the sort. He went to his room and only then did he begin to realize the significance of his victory. " I flung my helmut into a corner and the bang it made, woke me from my dreamy state. Only then, did it finally start to sink in that I was World Champion".
That wasn't the only odd thing that happened that night. Russi could not seem to find the suit he was supposed to wear to the awards ceremony scheduled at the ice rink in Ortisei. A very diligent comrade tried to help out by bringing an official uniform to Ortisei but in all the confusion of the festivities, Russi couldn't find the suit, so he ended up having to wear a team-mate's suit that was two sizes too small!
" The owner of Hotel Alaska in Selva drove me to the awards ceremony but we were held up in traffic and I was beginning to worry that I wasn't going to make it on time, so he called the 'carabinieri' and they escorted us with their sirens on all the way to Ortisei ".
Russi succeeded in winning the first international ski competition he took part of. "Of course it was a big moment for me, but it also required a lot of responsability. I knew that if I wanted to become a great athlete, I should have reached many other good placings in world cup races, in order to create the necessary requirements for a glorious career.
Over the next few years, his assumptions proved to be correct. After winning a gold medal in Sapporo in 1972 and a sliver medal in Innsbruck in 1976, Russi marked his role in sports history as a "remarkable " downhill skier.
The end of Russi's career came just as sudden and unexpected as its beginning. The decision came by walking back to the hotel after the world championship-downhill in Garmisch 1978. "I believed it was a privilege to decide on my own how and when to quit" recalls nowadays Bernhard Russi.
Gernot Mussner, 2003