Remember Eddie the Eagle? Now that’s a name from the past.
Michael (Eddie) Edwards dreamed of competing in the Olympics. In 1988, he was the United Kingdom’s only athlete to compete in ski jumping at the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. He finished last in his two events, but his popularity soared because of his perseverance. Eddie’s most loyal supporter was his mother, who wore a sweater Eddie’s grandmother made that read “I’m Eddie’s Mum.”
Eddie’s story returns in “Eddie the Eagle,” a new film starring Taron Egerton as Eddie, with Hugh Jackman portraying Eddie’s coach, Bronson Peary, and Christopher Walken playing Peary’s mentor, Warren Sharp.
When Laura Zander, owner of Jimmy Beans Wool and author of Stitch Mountain: 30 Warm Knits for Conquering the Cold, saw that sweater in the movie, she decided to knit an Eddie-themed hat for her son. She offered the pattern at no charge, and created a website where knitters can submit photos of their own Eddie hats and watch a video in which Egerton and Jackman supervise a knitting contest.
When I learned about the movie, I didn’t think about sweaters and hats. I thought about another athlete who competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics — and how a profile of him that aired on CBS during the 1992 Winter Olympics transformed me into the first American member of the “Pauli Fan-Club.”
Growing up on a farm in Davos, Switzerland, Paul Accola learned to ski on his stunning hometown slopes at age 4 and had begun racing by age 7.In 1988, he emerged as a promising skier. He made the team for the Calgary Olympics at the last minute and took home a bronze medal in the combined event. He joined the World Cup competitive circuit as a member of the Swiss National Ski Team, and his career as a professional ski racer took off.
Skiing smoothly and deceptively fast, Accola started winning World Cup races. He became known as a good all-around skier, racing downhill in addition to competing in slalom, giant slalom and super-giant slalom races. He won the 1991-1992 overall World Cup title in men’s Alpine skiing, but left the 1992 Albertville Olympics without a medal.
While Accola was winning races, I was studying journalism in graduate school at Ohio State. I had just taken a class on writing for magazines, so I decided to make him the subject of my first freelance magazine article. I successfully pitched the story, and it was published in February 1993.
I interviewed Accola a few times during the summer and early fall of 1992, sometimes relying on the skills I learned in my college German classes to ask him questions. His thorough, thoughtful responses gave him the chance to practice his English. Accommodating and helpful, he sent me copies of interviews he gave for some Swiss newspapers, hoping that they might also improve my German.Life isn’t always glamorous for a professional athlete, Accola revealed. He described how he and his teammates trained on the glaciers in Switzerland, Austria and Chile during the summertime. When they weren’t skiing, they did a lot of running, biking, weightlifting, and playing soccer and volleyball to get faster. He admitted that skiing was very hard on his body, and how tiring it got to be always traveling.
Known to his fans as “Pauli,” Accola told me that he enjoyed spending time off the slopes by driving his tractor and operating construction machinery on his family’s farm. A carpenter by trade, he helped fellow teammates build additions to their houses and landscape their gardens. He shared that he was working on his collection of Swatch watches, that his favorite music was Alpine folk music, and that his favorite meal was Bündner Z’vieri, a hearty local dish made with dried beef, ham, homemade bread, butter and cheese that is usually eaten by hungry Swiss in the late afternoon.
“I’m just myself and I am how I am,” he told me. “I’m just a regular guy from the Swiss Alps who is a bit faster on skis than almost everybody else. Other than that, I try to be as normal and natural as I can.”
I tried to be as normal and natural I could when my friend Elkin invited me to visit her in Aspen, Colorado and watch the World Cup ski races that would be held there in March 1993. Accola suffered a torn meniscus earlier that season, so we wondered if he’d be able to compete in Aspen, but he healed well enough to join the rest of the Swiss national ski team and put on his distinctive racing suit that resembled Swiss cheese — the result of the Switzerland Cheese Association’s sponsorship of the team.
Since the skiers had to stay there between runs, we stood alongside legendary racers like Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg…
Lasse Kjus, Lasse Arnesen, Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Ole Christian Furuseth of Norway; Frederik Nyberg of Sweden; Bruno Kernen and Urs Lehmann of Switzerland; and Patrick Ortlieb of Austria.
After the races, we ran into the skiers all over town. When we were shopping at Gorsuch, a shop specializing in ski resort wear, a couple of Norwegian racers helped me pick out a pair of socks for my dad. He, too, wore them until they went into holes.
Accola retired from professional skiing in February 2005, on his 38th birthday. He still drives his tractor around the family farm in Davos. Even though I’ve published almost 200 articles about other subjects since then, writing about this charming, down-to-earth Swiss skier is something I’ll never forget.
Susan Orlean said it best in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup.
“Readers often ask me if I stay in touch with anyone I’ve written about. It’s an understandable question; after all, when you profile people, you spend a lot of time with them, and you do come to know them very well – sometimes even better than people you think of as your friends. But writing a profile is a process that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Usually when it has ended, the writer and the subject have very little in common except for the fact that they were for a while a writer and a subject.”
“Inevitably, I lose track of many of the people I’ve written about. It’s the one part of the job that makes me melancholy. I know it is unrealistic and impractical to think I could stay close to everyone I’ve profiled, and even if I could, we would never be as close as we were when I was writing about them; still, it’s hard not to feel attached to people once you’ve been allowed into their lives. So what I have of them, and always will have, is just that moment we spent together – now preserved on paper, bound between covers, cast out into the world – and they will never get any older, their faces will never fade, their dreams will still be within reach, and I will forever still be listening as hard as I can.”