There was a time, in the late 1930s, when Émile Allais was a the best all-around skiier on the planet. In the 1937 world championships, he won gold medals in the downhill, slalom and combined, becoming the first athlete to win both downhill and slalom races in the international event. He was not only talented but also so bold and fearless that, after taking a bad fall and being knocked unconscious in an event in 1936, he returned the next day to race. Jean-Claude Killy, the legendary French skier who dominated the sport in the late 1960s, said that it was Allais who taught him to take risks.
But Allais, who died in France on Oct. 17 at age 100, was more than a great athlete. Perhaps more than anyone else, he helped to make skiing into a popular sport, not just in Europe but in the United States as well. And he changed the way that people skied - even inventing some of the equipment that we still use today. Here are five fascinating tidbits about the man whom Killy calls the father of modern skiing.
- He learned to ski because his uncle fought in World War I. Allais' father, a baker, was killed in the war, but his uncle, Hilaire Morand, managed to return to the town in the French Alps where they lived. Morand came back from the Russian front with a pair of skis and set about on a new career of teaching tourists to ski. He also made a pair of skis for his young nephew, and by age 8, Allais was an accomplished skier.
- He reinvented ski technique. Allais was among the first racers to go down the slopes with his skis parallel to each other rather than angled inward in a V shape, which was the convention in the 1930s. Here's a vintage photograph of him demonstrating his revolutionary new technique.
- He may have invented hot-dog skiing. Allais once did a complete somersault during a race, and somehow landed on his skis without losing any time, according to his New York Times obituary.
- He helped to launch the ski boom in America. After a broken ankle and World War II - he served in the battalion of French ski troops - ended his competitive career, Allais became a sought-after ski instructor and coach on both sides of the Atlantic. He coached the 1952 U.S. Olympic ski team, and taught skiing at Sun Valley in Idaho, where his Hollywood celebrity students included actor Cary Grant and film mogul Darryl Zanuck.
- He revolutionized skiing equipment. Starting in the late 1930s,Allais worked as a consultant for French sporting goods manufacturer Rossignol, whose skis he wore while competing. He was instrumental in the creation of a then-revolutionary metal ski named after him, the Allais 60, which French skier Jean Vuarnet used to win the men's downhill event at the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, Calif. Metal skis have since been replaced by fiberglass and synthetic materials, but another Allais innovation - boots that fasten to the skis - has lasted.
Here's a 2006 interview with Allais (sorry, it's in French) and some vintage film of his 1937 championship performance.