Switzerland’s Golden Girls—and Boys

The Beijing Winter Games ended Sunday night, and just when you thought you wouldn’t have to hear the word “Olympics” again until July 2024, you’re confronted with a post about Swiss skiing medalists. And I can’t even ski!

Ah, but I’m Swiss, which explains it all.

Okay, I’m a double citizen, Swiss/US, but when it comes to the Olympics, I confess I always cheer for my country of residence. Which of us doesn’t like rooting for the underdog? And, given that one of my countries has 8.7 million people and the other, 333 million, I think the roles of Chihuahua versus Great Dane are obvious.

In fact, this Olympics has made a very powerful statement about small versus large nations, with Norway (5.5 million people) winning a total of thirty-seven medals to China’s fifteen, and taking sixteen golds, twice the number the US won. Still, it was Switzerland, not Norway, that had my loyal support throughout the games, especially when it came to alpine skiing.

I imagine few Americans follow the annual world championship ski races as avidly as most Swiss do. Even before the Beijing Olympics, the average Swiss could have named at least two or three of our top downhill, slalom, and super-G racers. (This last race includes some slalom-like gates but primarily emphasizes speed.) Competition for the world cup in various alpine skiing events runs from late October to late March every year, and on big race days, a good chunk of Switzerland is glued to the TV. Ski racing takes place all over the northern hemisphere, from Western Canada to Slovenia, and every January two resorts in the Bernese Alps—Adelboden and Wengen—host major races. I’ve watched at least parts of these races now for thirty-three years. Not to have done so would be like never having watched even five minutes of a Super Bowl or World Series game in the US.

At the 2022 Olympics, the Swiss won a total of fourteen medals, including seven golds, ranking eighth on the world list of medalists. I already knew the names of five of our seven gold winners, since I’ve been cheering them on for quite a few seasons already, and I can’t resist telling you something about all seven.

In keeping with Switzerland’s multilingualism, only four of the seven medalists are native Swiss-German speakers, while three have other mother tongues: Lara Gut-Behrami’s is Italian, because she’s from the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino; Mathilde Gremaud’s is French; and Ryan Regez’s is English, because, although he grew up speaking German in the canton of Bern, his mother is British.

Michelle Gisin (28), who won both gold and bronze, is the younger sister of Dominique Gisin, an Olympic gold medalist in women’s downhill racing at Sotchi in 2014. The Gisin family comes from Samedan, a town of about three thousand people in the canton of Graubünden that is famous for being one of the coldest in Switzerland.  

Wendy Holdener and Michelle Gisin with silver and gold. Photo © Keystone / Jean-Christophe Bott

Our youngest gold medalist, Mathilde Gremaud from Canton Fribourg, is 22—she won in freestyle skiing, which in her case means skiing off a jump into the air, doing amazing acrobatics high over the ground, and landing smoothly enough to ski to the bottom of the slope. Our oldest is Beat Feuz at 35, who comes from a village in the Berner Emmental with fewer than a thousand inhabitants. He’s been a World Cup racer since he was nineteen, when he got the nickname Kugelblitz, or Ball of Lightening, which is a reference both his speed and his size (5’8”/1.72m.) By contrast, half-British Ryan Regez (29), who won his gold medal in ski cross, where four skiers race simultaneously on a course full of bumps and jumps, is 6’4” (1.92m). He came in just ahead of his teammate Alex Fiva (36), a joint USA/Swiss citizen, who was the existing Olympic champion in the event but came away this time with silver.

Beat Feuz on his way to winning a gold for Switzerland. Photo by REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Lara Gut-Behrami (30), the native Italian speaker who won her first World Cup race at 17, also speaks fluent German, French, and English. Her husband of four years, Valon Behrami, is a Swiss soccer star who, like Lara, grew up in the canton of Ticino, where he immigrated as a child with his Kosovar parents. Corinne Suter (27), known for speed the way Beat Feuz is, is from the canton of Schwyz, which gave Switzerland its name.

And finally there’s Mario Odermatt (24), who has already competed for Switzerland in two junior World Championships and two adult ones. He’s from Nidwalden, a tiny canton with a population of under 50,000 people. Days before winning his 2022 gold medal in the giant slalom, he won both of the world cup races held one after the other in Canton Bern.

One final note. In China, the Swiss were represented by 167 athletes, 92 men and 75 women, who won a total of 14 medals. Nine of these went to women, five to men. Considering that Swiss women weren’t even allowed to vote until 1971, their success in sports makes a significant statement.

Mathilde Gremaud does impossible things in the air. Photo credited to Agence Press-France

Initial photo of Marco Odermatt celebrating with his teammates is credited to Keystone.

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