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Colliard’s stylish slalom surprise

A 23-year-old pharmacy student, Renée Colliard (SUI) took a four-month break from her studies to prepare for and compete in the 1956 Winter Games. Although she had been involved in Alpine skiing since a young age, she had only begun competing three years earlier, through a local ski club in Geneva. Aside from her entourage, few Swiss fans believed that she had a realistic chance of victory in the Olympic slalom competition, scheduled for 30 January 1956 on the Col Drusciè run. Although it was her specialised discipline, it was also her first major international test.

Bouby Rombaldi, coach of the Swiss women’s ski team, took Colliard under his wing in Cortina, describing the course she was about to experience down to the slightest details. On 30 January, she was the first competitor to set off down the daunting hill, where 41 treacherous gates awaited. “It was a very cold day,” she recalled. “I think it got down to -28°. The snow was very, very icy, and the slopes were extremely fast. Heading off first was an advantage, because the run was hard, but not smooth.” After negotiating the gates with apparent ease, she posted a formidable time of 55.60 seconds for her first run, which none of the other participants were able to surpass.

Curiously, Colliard’s performance was not caught on camera. “I was wearing number one bib, and so I went first. I don’t think the film crews were ready. They did film the second run, though!” she exclaimed.

Going into that second run, Austria’s Regina Schöpf sat second, 0.40 behind Colliard, while Yevgeniya Sidorova (URS) and Giuliana Chenal-Minuzzo (ITA) found themselves a further 1.30 back. If there were any lingering doubts among the watching public about the leader’s nerve, they dissipated swiftly upon witnessing her second excellent performance in a row. Again making the course, this time dotted with 45 gates, look easy, she once more recorded the best time of the round (56.70), which gave her a total of 1:52.30 and a near three-second advantage over Schöpf (1:55.40). “She’d done some fantastic things in training; I was really counting on her,” said a proud Rombaldi.

Sidorova won the bronze, delivering the Soviet Union’s first ever Alpine skiing medal at the Olympic Winter Games.

Colliard’s unexpected yet assured triumph was met with great joy and excitement back home in Switzerland. Upon her return to Geneva, thousands of fans turned out to greet her and celebrate her achievement. The 1956 Games would prove to be the Olympic champion’s one and only moment of international glory, as she turned her back on sporting fame to pursue a career as a pharmacist and start a family.

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