All time greats: Top ten Australian winter athletes
Who are Australia’s greatest-ever winter athletes? With the Winter Olympics one month away I thought I’d pose what is a difficult question.
How do you compare snowboarders to skiers and those who survived off the sniff of a panini in the 80s to millionaire athletes of the most recent generation?
Well, I’m going to give it a go. The results won’t please everyone but having been to four Games and seen most of them first hand I’m going to rate them from 10 to 1. Drum roll please …
10. Alex Pullin
Two world championship wins and two overall World Cup titles place ‘Chumpy’ on this list. If he can snare what has been so far an elusive Olympic Games medal you’d expect him to rise up on the ranks.
9. Steve Lee
Described by a number of good judges as the best Australian skier they have seen, Steve Lee could also be described as unlucky. Winner of a World Cup super G event back in 1985, Lee represented Australia at three Olympics where he performed admirably but a medal alluded him. With better funding and support who knows how good he could have been.
8. Dale Begg-Smith
A Games gold and silver medal winner and by all accounts a wonderful mentor to young Australian moguls skiers such as Matt Graham. Brilliant skier and I’d likely feature him higher except his attachment to Australia was one of complete convenience and we’re never likely to hear from him again.
7. Steve Bradbury
Bradbury’s short track skating win in 2002 remains the stuff of legend. You know the yarn, everyone falls over and he becomes the last man standing. Thing was Bradbury was far from a mug. A gifted speed skater he’d also claimed bronze in the relay back 1994 – Australia’s first Games medal. Thing was Bradbury had dedicated a whole slab of his life to the sport and was actually bloody good; but perhaps didn’t have results to show for it until that fateful day in Salt Lake City 16 years ago.
6. Kirstie Marshall and Jacqui Cooper
Hard to split this pair of aerial freaks so I won’t. Marshall got the ball rolling by becoming Australia’s first winter sports World Cup champion (1992) and then won a world championship in 1997. Cooper picked up said ball from Marshall’s feats and ran with it, literally taking the sport to new heights in becoming the first woman to complete a triple-twisting triple somersault. She won five World Cup titles, a world championship and became the first Australian woman to be selected for five Winter Olympics. Cooper, like Marshall never won Games medals.
5. Malcolm Milne
Another trailblazer – in fact pretty much the first. First Australian to win a winter World Cup event (downhill) in 1969 and first again to win a world championship medal later that year when third in Val Gardena, Italy. His World Cup victory was also the first outside of Europe. A gentleman and a legend from Myrtleford Victoria – the incredible backstory of his brother’s tragic death at the 1964 Olympics only cementing his status as an Aussie great.
4. Alisa Camplin
If Bradbury’s win had a little arse, it’s fair to say Camplin’s less than 48 hours later was all class. The aerial skier battled busted ankles and more than a little bit of pressure with the injury-withdrawal of Cooper back in 2002 but landed her jumps when it mattered most. She backed that up four years later with a bronze after having a knee reconstruction the year before. Throw in a world championship and World Cup titles and you have the picture of a complete and very determined athlete.
3. Lydia Lassila
Carved of iron and similarly willed, Lassila is a champion athlete, role model and person. Going for her fifth Games she has the chance to become Australia’s most successful Winter Olympian if she can add another medal to her aerials gold (2010) and bronze (2014). But the neckwear is just part of the story for Lassila who refused to let her sport flounder when daring to compete a quad-twisting double somersault in Sochi while most around her took safe options. And yeah, she’s also had two kids. Her anomaly remains little success at world championships but it is a small hole in what is an outstanding resume.
2. Torah Bright
Bright was always next level. Word was she was good enough to compete and perhaps even medal in the halfpipe as a 15 year-old back in 2002. She just missed out four years later but reigned supreme under great personal duress in 2010 when she coolly snatched gold on her last run. Four years later she qualified for halfpipe, slopestyle and quite unbelievably – snowboard cross. It was a heavy workload to be sure but she did it her own way and still managed to claim a silver in the ‘pipe. A two-time X Games winner, she really has done it all and with style – her belated comeback for 2018 only adding to the intrigue surrounding our most marketable ever winter athlete.
1. Zali Steggall
At first glance a lone bronze medal (1998, Nagano) may not stack up so mightily against our golden men and women of snow and ice but Steggall’s career was all about context. The slalom skier’s achievement in Japan and subsequent world championship win in a year later (that achievement was so unexpected the wrong national anthem was played at the medal ceremony) was in a sport that literally has 10,000+ registered competitors and was (and is) taken incredibly seriously by Europe and North America. Effectively a lone wolf in terms of other Australians, she garnered local support by strong and ever-improving performances in the mid 1990s. She was the first individual Olympic medallist for her country. Her achievements in effect helped lead to the Olympic Winter Institute, paving the way for the sports that are so successfully targeted today.