“It used to be hay bales, now it’s high-tech”

When German skiing luminaries such as Felix Neureuther and Viktoria Rebensburg are contending for medals this winter, they rely on Karlheinz Waibel. Waibel, 50 years old, is the national coach for science and equipment at the German Ski Association and is thus responsible for the increasingly stringent safety standards

Interview Tino Scholz  Photos Dirk Bruniecki

Mr. Waibel, can you imagine competitive Alpine skiing without crashes?

Not really. It is racing, after all! And falls are an inherent part of it, unfortunately. The attraction for spectators is that they see the athletes pushing their limits. It’s also what makes it appeal to the athletes themselves. If there weren’t any risky maneuvers that could also lead to a wipeout the sport would lose something. Having said that, the risks must be kept within reasonable bounds. Therefore the safety aspects of competitive Alpine skiing are among my many tasks as the national coach for science and equipment.


How difficult is it, reconciling the athletes’ safety with putting on a good show?

It’s pretty complex, especially because so many factors play a role in skiing. There are the people, the equipment and what it’s made of, how the course is prepared, the natural conditions. The fascination of racing is built on these components: the better and safer the conditions, the more confidence athletes have in doing more. When they know that the slope is well prepared, with top safety precautions, and that their equipment is functioning optimally, they can take more risks.


How have the risks of the sport changed over the past years?

Major efforts have been made to provide more safety. Just think about the protection on the course: in the seventies and eighties, hay bales and wooden stakes were the safety standard. Today we set up threefold safety zones. We use high-tech to protect athletes. Moreover, the coaches regularly discuss what can be improved—even with small details.


Analog Preparation

Analog Preparation

Ski workshops such as this one used to be the standard—today you can view one in the Museum of the German Ski Association.


Is that one of the reasons why new levels of performance are continually being achieved?

Exactly. The safer we make the races, the more the athletes grow and the more they test their limits. The boundaries keep shifting, which leads to the emergence of new risk factors. We then try to mitigate these. But this cycle cannot continue forever; everyone must realize this.


What exactly is your function in this context as the national coach for science and equipment?

I promote the safety aspects of developments and innovations in the German Ski Association. From the professionals to the young talent. The experiences I gained as head coach of the German ski racers from 2009 of course help. Mainly stay in contact with the coaches. It’s important to hone the consciousness for risk management. I have a clear opinion: even the youngest must get out of their comfort zones in training. And even if it sounds a bit strange: it’s important to also train falls—and thus reflexes—at an early age. Because you’ll need these when you’re pushing your limits in competition.


Why does the German Ski Association (DSV) place so much value on the sharing of this sort of experience?

During my time as the men’s national coach we had many injured athletes in Alpine skiing. It was a huge problem, because the German Ski Association normally has only two or three athletes who can ski at the top level of the sport. If they’re injured, then we have almost no chances of winning. The question was: How could we continue to keep skiing at the limits of what was possible but at the same time reduce the danger of injuries? We’ve been working intensely on this for years and have achieved results such as the preventative prosthesis: an active protective element to help prevent knee injuries. But that can only be the beginning. Aside from which, of course, the health of our athletes in general is something that is very important to us, independent of the association’s interests.


Athletes generally tend to react cautiously to changes that affect their bodies. Why is that?

They’re racers. They don’t get rewarded for skiing safely down a slope—it’s about getting down it fast. That’s their motivation. You have to make it clear to them that the new protection won’t slow them down. The athletes are particular in this area; in competition we’re talking about tenths and hundredths of seconds. That’s why the changeover can sometimes take a while. Not long ago I saw a picture of Felix Neureuther, it must have been from around 2006. He was skiing a slalom wearing a beanie. It’s almost inconceivable! He was one of the last people to switch to helmets.


About Karlheinz Waibel

About Karlheinz Waibel

Karlheinz Waibel, known in the German Ski Association (DSV) as Charly, has been the national coach for science and equipment since 2014. One of his areas of responsibility is questions of safety, thanks to his many years of experience in Alpine racing.

Waibel, 50, was born in Sulzberg in the Allgäu region of southern Germany. He studied sports sciences in Munich and was also a ski racer. Today he is a qualified sports instructor specializing in competitive Alpine sports.

He’s been working in various positions as a coach and sports scientist with the DSV since 1995. He describes himself as a conditioning and event coach, for both the men’s (1995–2002) and women’s (2002–2003) Alpine world cup teams. Waibel was the scientific coordinator for the Alpine ski division from 2003 to 2009 and subsequently trained the men’s Alpine ski team until 2014.

The mindset that you mentioned is an important factor for athletes. How important is the fusion of mind and equipment?

Extremely important. If a skier feels comfortable and secure with their equipment and realizes that the equipment does what they want it to, it tremendously boosts self-confidence. It’s then, and I’d say only then, that the skier can also thrive.


And if not?

It leads to insecurity. Some are better at dealing with it, some aren’t. But all things considered, there is hardly anyone out there who can totally focus when they know that the equipment isn’t a precise fit, that the ski binding could come undone in a curve at more than 100 kilometers an hour. It’s a vital issue.


Which makes preparing for races even more important. What do athletes do while they’re waiting for the start?

They are intensely occupied with the course. Mentally, but also with a view to how it’s set up. Before the race, everyone has the opportunity to view the course. Depending on the event they get between 45 minutes to one and a half hours. Some come back down after five minutes, others barely finish within the allotted time.


Why is that?

Before starting, skiers visualize the course in their mind’s eye and ski down it several times. While some do it down to the millimeter and play through all the eventualities, others do it only perfunctorily, orienting themselves on just a few points. Everyone has their own approach. Which is also true of the visualization: some picture the course from their own perspective, while others do it as if a flying camera was filming them from behind.


And then everyone is in their own “tunnel” before the race?

The coaches are along the course and radio final instructions up until the last minute as to how the course has changed since the viewing. Some want very detailed information, while some don’t want to know anything. And then it’s all about going down the slope.


Strengthening the psyche is one thing—how can the equipment be made even safer?

This is an important topic even though it’s not so simple. Every technical advancement first costs a lot of money. Therefore it can only work together—and thank goodness we have a collective consciousness of coaches, industry, the associations and sports sciences that push safety forward.


Like, for instance the airbag for the neck, chest and spinal areas that’s been in use for two seasons now.

Yes. An Italian manufacturer has already successfully established these airbags in professional motorcycling. They’re well on their way to making it into ski racing.


Digital Analysis

Digital Analysis

Images from the racers are evaluated down to the last detail on laptop computers.

Have there been situations where the airbag helped prevent something worse from happening?

There are several examples, including Matthias Mayr and Hannes Reichelt from Austria. It’s said the airbag prevented more serious injuries. The algorithm can recognize the exact moment of a fall; there haven’t been any accidental deployments as of yet. The algorithm is thus a good thing. Now it’s about utilizing it to protect the knees. Since 2006, around 40 percent of injuries in Alpine racing have involved knees. But there are hardly any active protection mechanisms for this body part. The knee must be as unrestricted in its performance as possible. We still have a lot of development work to do, but we’re heading down the right path. Smart materials, for instance, could be of assistance.


Since 2006, around 40 percent of injuries in Alpine racing have involved knees.

But there are hardly any active protection mechanisms for this body part. The knee must be as unrestricted in its performance as possible. We still have a lot of development work to do, but we’re heading down the right path. Smart materials, for instance, could be of assistance.


In what form?

Like with the airbag for the torso, the sensor system could ensure that the airbag at the knee deploys during a fall, but also that the ski bindings release. This would decrease the pressure on the knee.


Why isn’t there already something like this?

Things like this require time and money. And the athletes must be persuaded, too. Algorithms and sensors are things that are difficult to grasp. The skiers prefer to trust in their mechanical bindings, that they know. It’s still a great hurdle, but one that we want to clear. Because it would increase safety.