A lasting ski jumping legacy – Erich Windisch
VAIL – As the skiers launch off the jumps in the Olympics, Erich Windisch, watching on TV, holds his breath. When they stretch for that extra meter upon landing, he stretches forward in his chair.And Windisch, 88, who is a longtime Vail resident and was a competitive ski jumper for Germany, has a connection with today’s ski jumpers that goes beyond the suspense of competition. A serendipitous discovery after an injury in 1949 ensured a legacy that still lasts. Because he dislocated his shoulder, he jumped with his arms at his sides instead of in front of him, as was the custom then.”It was a funny feeling because when I jumped (the traditional way), I had all my feeling in my fingertips,” he said, mimicking the airborne styles in the living room of his Vail home. “All of sudden you don’t have your hands there. The nose is ahead and it’s kind of scary.”He ended up winning the competition, and, soon, other jumpers were using the aerodynamic form. Today’s ski jumpers – who are jumping 800 feet compared to about 350 feet in Windisch’s time – still use the arms-back method.
Windisch made the German Olympic team in both ski jumping and Nordic combined for the 1952 Games in Oslo, Norway. But he again dislocated his shoulder just a week before the team left for Oslo, and he was unable to compete.”That was my biggest disappointment, of course,” he said.He was already 34 in 1952. It was his first chance to go to the Olympics – there were no Olympic Games in 1940 and 1944 because of World War II, and the Germans were not invited to the 1948 St. Moritz Games.He feels a kinship, he said, with U.S. ice skater Michelle Kwan, who withdrew from the Torino Olympics this week because of an injury.”It’s such a shock,” he said. “You work toward that and all of a sudden, here you are, unable to go.”At 88, still teaching
Windisch stopped competing shortly after the 1952 Games. But he was hardly done with skiing – it has been a constant in his life. He was a ski instructor in Germany, and continued teaching after he came to the United States in 1956. He so impressed his examiners – who included Vail founder Peter Seibert – at a ski instructor test at Arapahoe Basin that he was brought on to teach ski instructors.Seibert and Windisch were friends when they both lived in Georgetown. Seibert would come to Windisch’s house and show him pictures of wide-open bowls where he wanted to develop a ski resort.”I thought, ‘Another little ski area too far from Denver,'” he said.A decade later, Windisch was won over by Seibert’s dream, and moved to Vail. He ran Vail’s ski patrol for a year, and then moved to the ski school to work for then-director Roger Staub.”My heart was in teaching rather than picking up the pieces,” he said, referring to working ski patrol.
Almost four decades later, Windisch is still teaching at Vail. The octogenarian instructs skiers about four days a week. Windisch Way, a run near the bottom of Vail Mountain, is named for him.Teaching is one of the things that keeps him as spry as a man who’s 30 years younger, he said. That, in addition to his wife, Elena, and his daughter, Sasha, who’s a college student, he said.’Completely free’ Windisch has also become an accomplished downhill racer. He has won 14 master’s national championships, competing in the downhill, super-G, slalom and giant slalom.He’s aiming to compete again next year – against the admittedly thinning competition in the 85-plus category – when the master’s championships comes to Vail, he said.Windisch’s Hall of Fame plaque hangs in the Colorado Ski Museum. His house, though, is a formidable museum in its own right. His display case holds medals from six decades of competition. His walls are framed with newspaper articles, posters and photos – including a photo of him hucking Highway 6 near Loveland Pass that would impress any young twin-tipper.
He is also an avid painter. Many of his paintings are, not surprisingly, mountain landscapes. His paintings will be on display from March 1-15 at the Vail Library.For all of his success in teaching, racing and painting, he speaks of ski jumping like a first love.”The flying, the feeling you get when everything goes right, it’s a great feeling to fly out there, completely free,” he said.Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14623, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado