From near tragedy to triumph –
that was Konrad Bartelski’s extraordinary story. Six years after one of the all-time spectacular downhill crashes, he became the first – and only - British male downhill racer to stand on a World-Cup podium. Famously, it even prompted a French TV commentator to shout, excitedly: “Ce n’est pas possible! C’est un Anglais!” Bartelski recalls: “You could say there were two significant milestones in my career. The first was when I was just 21, at Megève on February 8, 1975. There was a problem with the jump just before the finish. They’d been ferrying off all these ‘bodies’ with helicopters - Klammer had won all the races that year and even he had crashed, so that was one race he didn’t win that year! The message from the coach was just be careful going over that. So then it was my turn to go. The next thing I know is I’m in hospital and it’s about 6 oclock at night, and some friends walked in the room and you could tell I wasn’t looking too good because they didn’t dare look at me.
“ I put my hand up to my face and my face got in the way ! It was a bit swollen. I’d gone over this road, and as I’d been told, tried to take it a bit easy. But the backs of my skis hit the road and they just cartwheeled me into the ice near the landing area. I had pretty serious concussion.
“One thing I never thought about was my parents. They were watching it. I was looking at a tape of it about 20 years later, and you realise suddenly it must have been quite creepy for them. It was regarded as one of the most famous wipes of all time and people still talk about it. If there’s ever a crash on the world cup circuit they often compare it. People still come up to me and say: ‘Megève, 1975!’
“I had broken my nose and scratched my face quite badly, but the real problem was that I was unconscious. I was lying on the snow for about 45 minutes before the helicopter came to pick me up, so I had a little bit of “air” time (TV not big air) which was actually quite useful. People weren’t sure if I was dead or alive. But one of my Italian friends who popped in to hospital said: ‘Well done - if you’re not going to win the race at least have a good crash and make more money that way !’
“And he was right – from that point on I managed to secure some contracts, and it did help my notoriety on the circuit. It did improve my lifestyle.
“It took me a month before I was able to ski again. I was in hospital for a week and then I was at home for two weeks and couldn’t do anything . And the frustrating thing was that people said: ‘You don’t come back from crashes like that’.
“That was the worrying factor. They said if you have a crash like that you’ll never be the same again
“Well, that may be true for some people, but it wasn’t really an issue for me. All I wanted to do was to get back and do the thing I did best - ski racing. But when I did my next race at Villars, on my first practice run I got into the start hut and realised I’d forgotten how to ski !
“It’s an experience I’d never had in my life before or since. Of course I did ski, but it was an additional pressure. Right from the beginning of my career, people had said that being British ‘you can’t ski anyway’.
“Then being a guy who’s had a big crash means you also can’t ski. So it wasn’t exactly what the doctor ordered.” Bartelski had to wait six years for his day of glory. So let us wind the clock forward to that incredible day in Val Gardena.
“December 13, 1981 was a funny day” he recalls “I’d woken up and heard some reports about the Russians planning to invade Poland, and having some relatives there I was a little bit pissed off about that. I also had a cold and I was depressed about that.Generally morale was not good. Things seemed pretty well stacked against me up in the start hut.
“I thought well, to hell with it, I’m just going to get on to the next race. I had no ambition, no desire, for the one I was about to do. Although in the start hut I kept my head down so it didn’t look like I was scared or shirking my responsibility. It was the first time I’d said :’I’m not going to go and win this race.
“I didn’t grit my teeth or die for my country. I just skied down, keeping my shoulders low like one does. When I got down to the bottom, I had a slight problem with the last jump.I just mis-timed it slightly, because my eyes were watering a bit. And then I heard a few cheers and I turned round and looked at the time clock. The time was 2.07 And I thought mm…. I guess I must be in the top 10. So I thought, well, I’m going to put my hands up and cheer just in case I am. And then this Italian friend of mine came over and he had my jacket and he said: ‘You’re second, you’re second!’
“Then Peter Mueller runs over and he says :’You silly bastard !’
“And I said :’What do you mean?’
“And he said: ‘You had that race won. You lost it on the jump on the bottom’.
“And I had. I’d been a tenth of a second ahead at the jump and I lost two tenths of a second on the jump and Iost the race by 11 hundredths of a second to Erwin Resch - he’s won about three or four downhills, he’s a good downhiller - and Leonhard Stock was third behind me.
“My motivation had been some day to show that someone from Britain could compete with the Austrians and the Swiss at their own game. And for 13 years I’d been getting on the fringe of it but not really done it. Now I’d achieved what I’d set out to do. And that was significant. To see the Union Jack up on the podium was a very, very special moment. Because everybody said you can’t do it. You know, Britain can never do it. They’re still saying Britain can’t do it. But we did it.
“The most interesting thing happened when I went skiing with Todd Brooker after Val Gardena. We drove over to Crans Montana and went skiing in beautiful powder snow. And it’s a kind of a special feeling when you ski down and you’ve just come second in a World Cup race and you’re thinking…..well, you’re one of the best skiers in the world, and you’re skiing through the trees in powder. And on that one day you’re up there, it’s special. I felt invincible – so much so that I almost skied off a cliff. “
It was by no means a fluke.
“That season I got into the top 15 in the world” says Konrad. “In the world championships at Schladming in 1982, in the last training run I think I was fourth quickest and Klammer was actually watching me and viewing me as one of the key competitors. I was seventh in the combined downhill that year, 13th in Garmisch and 15th in Aspen so I had four world cup placings. At the end of that season, 1981-82, I was ranked 12th in the world on FIS points. There’d been no British male skier in the top 15 in the world in this country before.“
© Arnie Wilson, Ski and Board