He is called the “Yoda of Ski Racing” and the “Wizard of Buck Hill.” Erich Sailer also deserves “living legend.”
Having coached World Cup champions and Olympians over his long career, including alpine stars Lindsey Vonn and Kristina Koznick, Sailer is known for churning out some of the world’s best ski racers. Perhaps most remarkable: Sailer has done much of it from the flatlands of the Midwest as the head coach and program director of the Buck Hill Ski Racing Club in Burnsville.
The Austrian-born coach, who was once a professional skier, first raced on skis made of hickory in his homeland. In the mid-1950s, he emigrated to Canada and then to Oregon, where he founded the first summer training camp in the United States at Mount Hood. In 1969, he went in search of recruits from the heartland, eventually leading him to settle in Minnesota. Since then, he has molded thousands of young ski racers from his outpost on Buck Hill along Interstate 35, which touts a mere 310-foot vertical drop.
In a recent interview while en route from Minneapolis to Colorado, Sailer reminisced about a career spun over a half-century, as well as the unique nature of ski race training in Minnesota.
On becoming a coach
In Austria, everyone had to learn a profession if they didn’t go to college, which I didn’t. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all in the house painting business, and when I was done with high school I was in line to be the one to take over the business. I learned how to paint, but I still always liked skiing better. So, I decided to come to America and go to Mount Hood in Oregon in 1955.
On establishing the first U.S. summer training camps
When we started it in 1956, it was the first summer racing camp here in the United States, so I was a bit of a pioneer. At the time, training in the summer wasn’t popular here, but it was in Europe, mainly in the Alps. If you want to become an Olympian, training in the winter isn’t enough. You need more. We knew that, so we started those camps with just 10 people, but eventually got up to 350 in Oregon and 640 in Montana.
On coming to Minnesota
I came to Minnesota because I wanted to fill up my training camps. I knew I needed flatlanders who would have to travel to the mountains to train, so I figured it would be good for business. I wasn’t planning on staying, but then I got to know the people here and we started winning races, so I ended up settling here.
On the unique nature of training in Minnesota
We specialize in slalom. We have the rope tow and can do 1,000 gates a day or 400 gates a night. Repetition is very important. All of our kids that have made the U.S. Ski Team, including Lindsey [Vonn], got their foundation in slalom. It’s like going to the driving range, where you can run it, and run it, and run it, and get good.
On what athletes get back from the sport
They learn how to be a part of a team, how to be disciplined and how to deal with challenges they encounter. These are many of the skills you need for life. My own daughter was on the team, and she was a hard worker, which led to a scholarship and two degrees. And now she’s working, still coaching once a week, and is married with a baby. She’s a perfect example of how it works.
On what he loves about coaching
I enjoy everything about it — the ups and downs. I’m so grateful for it. I think it’s why I’m still alive because it keeps me in motion and mentally and physically healthy. I also like working with the kids, especially when they are younger and honest, motivated and fun. It keeps me young. I’m very old, but I don’t look it, which is why I can continue to do what I do.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.