Last October a few dozen boosters of U.S. downhill skier Ted Ligety marched in a parade. They waved American flags and brandished “Ted Ligety fan club” banners as a woman in a stars-and-stripes onesie belted out “Born in the U.S.A.” from the back of a pickup truck.
These fans weren’t from Denver or Ohio. They were from Austria and Germany. And they were marching in an annual fan parade in Austria, the nation with more Olympic downhill skiing medalists than any other.
“I like Ted because he is a very good skier and a likable man,” wrote the pickup-truck singer, Jeannette Marschner of Wilkau-Haßlau, Germany, in an email with a smiley emoji. The 44-year-old truck dispatcher at a brick factory has traveled to see Mr. Ligety race at least once a year since she joined the fan club in 2013.
While U.S. professional skiers can stroll American streets unbothered, they’re rock stars in European countries where skiing is as popular as baseball is stateside. The ranks and organization of U.S.-flag-waving European fans have swelled in recent years as several American skiing stars have emerged.
“We’re every country’s second-favorite team to root for,” says Mr. Ligety, who at age 33 is preparing for his fourth Olympics, which open Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. “If you’re Italian, you’re not going to root for Austrians.”
Nils Wamsler and Ramona Schönbrodt, both 27 years old and German, started a fan club for American phenom Mikaela Shiffrin about five years ago as the then-teenager’s career took off. Ms. Shiffrin has won six of the eight slalom races she has entered this season in the World Cup, alpine skiing’s top international circuit. She is favored to win her second Olympic gold in the event in Pyeongchang.
Ms. Schönbrodt was inspired to start a
page devoted to Ms. Shiffrin after meeting her while volunteering at a race in Munich over New Year’s 2013. Ms. Schönbrodt recalls Ms. Shiffrin dropping an armload of gear she was carrying to sign an autograph for her.
Mr. Wamsler calls Ms. Shiffrin “the female Marcel Hirscher.” Translation: Mr. Hirscher is the LeBron James of Austria.
Mr. Wamsler built a Shiffrin fan website that he says many mistake for her official site and started a YouTube channel with slickly produced highlight videos. The fan club fields 30 to 40 requests weekly for Shiffrin autographs, Mr. Wamsler says, mostly from European fans. Club members cheer her on at races wearing ski caps bearing the name of one of Ms. Shiffrin’s sponsors, Italian pasta maker Barilla.
“Of course that looks really cool if you have 30 people there all wearing the same hat,” Mr. Wamsler says.
U.S. skiers do have American fans. Ms. Shiffrin’s manager, Kilian Albrecht, noted that thousands turned out to see her race at World Cup events over the previous two years in Killington, Vt.
Yet Mr. Albrecht acknowledged that the German-based fan club appears to be Ms. Shiffrin’s largest. He says it’s mainly in European skiing hotbeds that Ms. Shiffrin must leave her team jacket at home and pull her collar around her face to avoid being recognized in public.
About 36% of Austrians identify as skiers or snowboarders compared with 8% of Americans, according to an international ski-industry report by consultant Laurent Vanat.
Alpine skiing is broadcast on public-service media in 24 countries across Europe and is increasingly popular, according to a spokeswoman for the European Broadcasting Union. In Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavia, skiing regularly attracts a market share over 20%—about what last season’s World Series averaged in the U.S.
Lionel Agoutin and Peter Menke, both pilots and ski fans, print banners and organize fan support at World Cup races, mostly for American skiers.
Mr. Agoutin lives in Paris and Mr. Menke lives outside St. Louis, though he was born in Strasbourg, France, and considers himself half-French, half-German.
Europeans support American skiers in part because they know U.S. athletes receive no government funding, Mr. Menke says. They also love the country.
“They all recognize that the U.S. really is the land of opportunity,” Mr. Menke says. “They look at these skiers in awe.”
Europeans have long admired outstanding American skiers. Tamara McKinney, who in 1983 became the first American woman to win the alpine skiing overall season World Cup title, recalls a superfan waving a U.S. flag for her at events along with one from his native Switzerland. Ms. McKinney says she still receives about 20 fan letters a year—19 of them from Europe.
Continental fandom of U.S. skiers gathered steam in the early 2000s, when Americans Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller started winning big races, says Tom Kelly, a longtime spokesman for U.S. Ski and Snowboard. In the past two Olympics, U.S. alpine skiers have won 13 medals, up from a total of four in the 2002 and 2006 Games.
Phil McNichol, U.S. men’s alpine team head coach from 1997 to 2008, recalled numerous encounters with fans as the team traveled in Austria.
“It wasn’t uncommon to roll into, say, a highway
and Bode and Daron would just get mobbed,” Mr. McNichol says. When American skiers returned to the U.S., he says, “It was like Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth. No one even knew who you were.”
A fan in Austria who identifies herself only as Marion says she launched a Facebook page for
fans in 2010, after Ms. Vonn won Olympic gold in her best event, the downhill, and a bronze in Super G. The page, bedecked with star-spangled fonts and an American-flag background, has more than 21,000 followers as Ms. Vonn approaches her fourth Olympics.
Mr. Ligety’s fan club is still going strong with 49 members, says its founder, Lutz Ebert, a 58-year-old intensive-care nurse in Zwickau, Germany.
He recalls fan club members in matching red jackets bumping into Mr. Kelly, the U.S. Ski team spokesman, a few years ago in an alpine restaurant. Mr. Kelly, who “speaks perfect German,” Mr. Ebert says, ordered up an Austrian gesture of hospitality: a round of shots.
“We drank the schnapps together!” Mr. Ebert says.
Write to Rachel Bachman at email@example.com
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Appeared in the February 5, 2018, print edition.