My speech given at the first scholarship award ceremony from Werner’s Foundation. Why give this particular award, when at the end of the day, alpine racing is all about winning or at least coming in second or third for a chance to stand on the podium, receive a medal and the applause for well done?
Why give an award to the racers who lost the podium position by a half-second, or a finish time way back in the pack? For some racers, try as they might the podium seems just out of reach?
To understand the importance of the Werner Zwahlen Foundation Scholarship is to get to know Werner’s character.
Years before cell phones and the availability of high mountain Swiss rescue helicopters, Werner and three of his friends began a perfect day of skiing down from the summit of a 3000-meter glacier.
While traversing a pencil-thin line running perpendicular to the glacier headwall that steeply dropped down into an exitless bowl. Midway into the traverse, one of the friends fell off the trail and disappeared down the headwall.
Without hesitation Werner volunteered to ski down the headwall and attempt a rescue should his friend suffered injury. He checked his gear, turned and slipped over the lip and the almost vertical headwall down the snowfield to the floor of the bowl.
When he found his friend too injured to stand and climb back up the headwall, he administered what first aid he could, and knew he have to carry his friend up to safety. And so he did. That day on his beloved mountains, his courage and tenacity saved his friend’s life.
Years later, Werner faced another day that would test his courage. This test did not begin on the white face of the Alps. It began on the white sheets of a hospital bed. The day his doctor said, “You have advanced esophageal cancer.”
Silence hung between the diagnosis and Werner’s response, “Bummer.” The doctor began to speak, but Werner wasn’t listening. He said to no one in particular, “Why me? Why did this happen to me?” No one answered. Who could? Werner spoke again, to someone, not to us. “Wait I’m sorry. I can’t believe I just said that.”
In that awful moment something extraordinary happened. He pushed out of the starting gate onto the course of his race for life against esophageal cancer, a lethal competitor. He recovered his line, set his edges and drove on through cancer’s first assault, self-pity. From that moment on I knew he would never be cancer’s victim.
The brutality of this race course tested his courage, his physical strength, and his faith. Whatever cancer threw at him to knock him off course, he hung onto his faith in God, the underpinning of his strength to stay the course. Again and again he pushed on to win the next and the next gate with the same extraordinary courage he exhibited that day years ago, when he rescued his friend from the belly of the glacier.
Certainly most young racers are not facing the challenge of fighting cancer. But in Werner’s eyes their life challenges were and are equally important if not more important, he would say, than his circumstances.
Sometimes for a young racer, the challenge to win a podium position is repeatedly out of reach. Because of this it hold the potential for discouragement that might lead to the decision to quit.
Certainly Werner coached his athletes to win, but his coaching went beyond the technicality of turning in gates. Werner believed success in alpine racing is not only measured by talent and result, he believd success was also measured by an athlete’s will to develop their strengths with a no quitting attitude to find the courage to face and work through tough challenges.
Because of how he led by his own example while coaching and his race for life against cancer, he inspired several generations of young people to become the victor and not the victim on the Podium of Life.
The Werner Zwahlen Ski Education Scholarship is awarded to the athletes who have faced their challenges with courage, tenacity and spirit that exemplified Werner’s character.
This speech received a standing ovation not because of my delivery, but because of the Werner and The Podium of Life.
These words from one of the athletes parent.
I sent your speech onto 30 family and friends, and our minister. It is most inspiring and carry’s forth a message of new beginnings, hope and faith. At the awards banquet our entire table was so moved by your words and reflection of your husband’s character.”
This is why I write, to encourage and bring a message of hope beyond hopelessness.