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“It’s wrong to want to play the hero”

During his career, Pirmin Zurbriggen (45) won 40 World Cup races, four Overall World Cup Titles, four World Championships and was Olympic champion in 1988. Zurbriggen heads up the young talent department at Zermatt Ski Club and is president of the regional association Ski Valais. He lives with his wife and five children in Zermatt. In this interview, he reveals what it takes to awaken and develop a love of winter sports in children.
On 5 and 6 December, the Junior FIS Races will be taking place at Trockener Steg. What significance do these races have for young Alpine racers and how many athletes is Zermatt Ski Club expecting?
We have been holding the FIS races for x years. It is a tradition of Zermatt Ski Club to organise these races for young people at the beginning of the season so that they can get a good start into the winter and collect points for the entire year. We want to uphold this tradition of providing our youth here in Zermatt with support for what they have worked hard for in the ski club.
The races taking place this year are National Junior Races. As a priority, the best juniors in Switzerland will be attending. In the past few years, there were general international FIS races with 140 to 150 participants and with up to 70 participants from other countries. Perhaps that sheds another light on the races. Nevertheless: This time more emphasis is being placed on juniors in Switzerland because we have very many juniors who are unable to participate in races in the region. That is why we have said that we want it to be conducted as National Junior Races. I am anticipating 140 racers at the starting line.
On 7 and 8 February the Valais Youth Championships (JO) will be taking place. What’s behind this?
We’ve opened the Valais Championships for everyone. We’ll send the girls through the slalom on one day and the boys on the other day. Approximately 350 athletes will be starting there. The youths are between the ages of 11 and 14 and are divided into two categories: Youth 1 (born in 96/97) and Youth 2 (born in 94/95). From this race, the selections that decide the national candidates will subsequently take place. This race has high priority in Valais for this reason. We’ve seen that the Valais Champions chosen there are in leading positions at the Swiss Championships.
From your point of view, how has the development of young talents changed over the decades? What areas do you try to focus on in your work?
Working with young talents involves animating children for winter sports. It is meant to lead the children to winter sports and requires collaboration with schools. That is why we created the “School and Snow Sports” project (, Young Talent Development Project of the regional association Ski Valais; editor’s note). We then noticed that the clubs do not work professionally enough and do not have contact to the schools. On the other hand, the depth of youth development is too shallow. Today the club has new tasks because we have developed the project with the training centres. Today we work much more professionally than several years ago.
As part of a promotion, Zermatt Tourism invited 100 Swiss youths to Zermatt last winter. Nearly one quarter of them could not ski. Is this a trend towards more complacency?
This has to do with a number of factors. 1. The schools are no longer willing to participate in skiing. 2. There are many types of sports to engage in. 3. Many clubs, even in the valley, have slightly neglected skiing to some extent. Children must be introduced to winter sports as early as kindergarten. But we can’t leave everything to the schools. It also has to be said that parents are often too complacent.
What does Pirmin Zurbriggen tell his young Alpine racers when they are at a psychological low point and no longer have any desire to engage in competitive sports?
 There are very different situations. I trained the youngest athletes then switched to the JO age group. It has to do with the child itself. It has to do with puberty. Because it you want to do something specific, it takes more time. Is the child ready for that? It depends on the motivation. How do I manage to interact with people as a trainer or superior? Parents also need to play a contributing role in developing this area. You must not only address the children, but the parents as well.
With the ChilloutRiding label, the Zermatt Mountain Cableways, Engadin St. Moritz, Davos Klosters and the Jungfrau Region are committed to enjoyment and relaxation while skiing and snowboarding – against speeding on the pistes. What does Alpine racer Zurbriggen have to say about that?
This is completely correct, because there’s nothing more dangerous than going fast on public pistes. Even if you think you have to play the hero – it’s wrong. On public pistes you actually need to enjoy what you are doing, know what can be dangerous and not push yourself beyond your limits. You have to stay realistic regarding your quality of skiing and not go beyond that so as not to endanger anyone. This is a process that has emerged from new skiers – with this quality, skiing has become much easier and faster. That is why the ChilloutRiding label is a good and sensible idea.
You are the father of five children. When and how does a young Zurbriggen get on skis for the first time, which means everything in the world here in Valais?
I don’t do that because I hope to see one of my children at the top. I already know how difficult it is and how hard the struggle is to accomplish something at the worldwide level. I experience something with my children: that we spend unbelievably wonderful hours together skiing. That I can develop a relationship with my children in this direction, which is not characterised by home or school, but that we can also share something in our leisure time. This experience, which my father in turn gave me – is unforgettable for me. It goes very deep, very close to home. It is a relationship with a parent, which is quite wonderful. You experience good and bad times, yet you still travel from one place to the other, Saturday, Sunday. You experience stations that you never could have imagined, ambiance. You make friends. That’s why I do that with my children.
Do you go on family outings to the pistes and what are your preferred regions?
We go everywhere. Skiing is a priority for us.
In 2010 you will be the first Swiss to participate in the torch run for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada.Is there anything that you would like to have accomplished before this event?
It’s too close for the boys and girls involved in the development project to participate there.Nonetheless, I am overjoyed to be able to take part in the event.  It’s a one of a kind experience.I know what it means to be an Olympic torchbearer.We did that in Turin with many children from here.It was a one of a kind experience.For me, the torch is the fire of peace and when this is passed on in sports, this symbol means that you can compete with one another and still live together in peace,and that this can be celebrated.I am counting on having a few of our athletes from Valais there in 2014, such as Daniel Albrecht, Silvan Zurbriggen, Didier Defago and Fränzi Aufdenblatten.

Pirmin, thank you for the interview.

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