Young Swiss skiers Aline Danioth and Melanie Meillard lit up the second Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer in 2016. Aged only 17 at the time, they have since been living up to expectations, with Meillard claiming a World Cup top-three finish and Danioth a World Championship team title. They are now focusing their dreams on claiming Olympic success together at the Winter Games Beijing 2022.
Thanks to the likes of Dominique Gisin, a downhill gold medallist at Sochi 2014, and Wendy Holdener, the Alpine combined champion at PyeongChang 2018, Switzerland occupies a prominent place in women’s Alpine skiing. And if the exploits of talented youngsters Danioth and Meillard at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lillehammer 2016 are anything to go by, that status looks secure.
Stars of the show
Danioth, who hails from Andermatt, and Meillard, from Neuchatel, won no fewer than six medals between them at the second Winter YOG: three golds, a silver and two bronzes. Danioth remembers it as if it were yesterday: “It was such a great occasion and I was very lucky to experience it all as a young athlete. It was huge, like the Olympic Games themselves. We were stars for a whole week, and being at the Olympic Village with athletes from other sports was special too. It was an incredible atmosphere.”
Four in a row
Danioth’s dream YOG began with an unexpected bronze in the super-G. “I really wasn’t expecting anything,” she recalls. “It’s not my best event and I hadn’t trained for it that much. I still managed to finish third, though, and that took the pressure off. I won the combined the next day, picked up a medal in the giant, and then took gold in the slalom. Things just flowed for me.”
Meillard has equally vivid memories of Lillehammer: “Obviously, being on top of the podium stands out for me, but I also remember sharing a podium with Aline. It was a great moment to be there with a fellow Swiss who also happens to be a friend. I’ve never experienced anything like it before.”
United in victory at the YOG, Meillard and Danioth have been rubbing shoulders with each other for many years. “We’ve been racing together for a long time,” explains Meillard. “We’ve been in training groups together and we were in the European Cup group when we won those medals. Now we’re in the World Cup group. We’re good friends, but when we’re out on the slopes we’re rivals.”
While both have been making steady progress since Lillehammer, they have also had to contend with injury. Danioth ruptured cruciate ligaments in her left knee in Sestriere (ITA) at the end of 2016 and was sidelined for six months. After slowly easing her way back to fitness, she resumed her climb through the ranks, recording a maiden parallel slalom win in the European Cup and appearing at the Junior World Ski Championships. She has also begun to make her mark in the World Cup, scoring her first points in late 2017 in Linz (AUT) and earning tenth place in Flachau in 2019.
Meillard has made an even steeper ascent, coming sixth in a World Cup slalom in Levi (FIN) just a few days after her 18th birthday in 2016. Thanks to her glide speed and foot speed, she continued to progress and secured her first podium finish at the City Event in Oslo on 1 January 2018, with five more top-ten placings coming her way that same month.
The young Swiss was understandably full of confidence as she prepared for her full Olympic Winter Games debut at PyeongChang 2018. Disaster struck on the eve of the Opening Ceremony, however, when she fell on a giant slalom training run, rupturing a cruciate ligament and damaging her left kneecap. An initial operation proved unsuccessful, forcing her to go under the knife for a second time in October 2018. Yet despite the setback, Meillard is smiling once more. “The recovery process has been long but I’m over the worst of it now,” she said in February 2019. “I hope to get my skis back on soon and start skiing again. As for racing, we’ll just have to wait and see. I’ve learned a lot about myself in this period. I know a lot more about my body. I’m learning not to push it because you always want it to do more than it’s able to.”
Team glory in Åre
Meillard watched from home as Danioth won the first Alpine World Ski Championships gold medal of her career in Åre (SWE) in 2019, in the team event with Ramon Zenhäusern, Daniel Yule, and Holdener. “I was so happy to be in the team and to play a part in Switzerland’s first ever gold in the event,” said Danioth. The two are now aiming for a reunion in the national team and are seeking more success. “I hope we can meet up again next year,” said Danioth. “We’ve both been injured, but a year apart.”
Meillard and Danioth have every chance of spearheading Switzerland’s new generation of skiers at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. In the meantime, they may well be called upon to share some of their experience with their young compatriots on home snow at the third Winter YOG Lausanne 2020, where the skiing events will take place on the slopes of Les Diablerets and Villars-sur-Ollon.