It’s difficult to ask Julia Dujmovits about her recollection of the Kaprun Funicular Disaster. But for a chance spontaneous decision, the tragedy would have claimed the future Olympic Parallel Slalom champion’s life alongside the 149 others who died in the smoke and flames that day.
Seveteen years ago in the pretty Austrian ski resort a defective heating unit started a fire in the ascending train of the funicular, rupturing the hydraulic cables and activating the emergency braking system, bringing the train to a halt 600 metres into the tunnel. Three km in length, the tunnel carried the trains up to and down from the Alpine Centre at 2450m. It acted like a blast furnace for the expanding fire. With the train’s doors automatically sealed exit was almost impossible. Only a handful got out through the shatter resistant windows and of those just twelve survived.
I know the thirteen year old Julia had a lucky escape. I know she lost her closest friends so I’m cautious about asking. But I was eight hundred miles away at the time and blissfully ignorant of the tragedy unfolding with such fury high in the Austrian alps. It’s Julia who’s had to overcome, not me; If she can answer, who am I not to ask?
And as it turns out Julia is a lady not just possessing of courage, but made of it.
“My friends and I all had the same dream,” she begins. “We wanted to become professional snowboarders. We were always the first on the skiing lifts taking us up to the glacier with the goal of improving day by day. On the 11.11.2000 this was no different. Because the rest of our team was still busy my brother and I went ahead. Since there was a snowboarding event on that day, and a big line at the cable railway, my brother suggested taking the gondola instead, a decision which ultimately saved our lives. As soon as we arrived on the mountain we could see masses of black smoke coming from the tunnel which the cable railway passes through. Along with my best friends 149 other people died that day at the fire disaster of Kaprun. At that moment I did not only lose my friends but also my entire faith and trust in the world. It took me a long time before I was able to recover, have fun, enjoy life and step back on my snowboard. I just felt that snowboarding had taken so much away from me that I never wanted to do it again. A few months later I took the decision to return to Kaprun, this was the decision which brought me back to life. In the end it was the sport of snowboarding which connected us all and would be the only thing which would allow me to strengthen my body and mind again.”
Over the coming years Julia would face more setbacks, each chipping away – sometimes quite literally – at the future Olympic champion until she had to find a way to rebuild herself, or else succumb. A fractured ankle, broken collarbone, and nemesis of skiers and snowboarders alike, torn ACL – not once but twice – all threatened to bring down Julia’s otherwise promising future as a professional sportswoman.
“Throughout my career I have experienced a lot of injuries. Here is where friends, family and fans are extremely important since a physical injury often presents a psychological strain as well. If you don’t have a supportive base around you it can be hard to keep on pushing without losing motivation, especially when an event such as the Olympics only comes around every four years. Furthermore Yoga has increasingly become an anchor in my life, both when it comes to overcoming setbacks in my career as well as in my personal life.”
Julia’s Olympic gold would come at one of the most exhilarating races of the 2014 Sochi Games. Parallel Slalom is an event whereby competitors literally race each other down the course. The first to cross the line wins. Typically stronger at PGS (Parallel Giant Slalom), Julia failed to qualify at Sochi, finishing 29th overall. Once again facing a moment of regeneration, she drew upon those by now characteristic reserves of inner fortitude and focused on the Parallel Slalom three days hence. And reached the final.
Julia faced German (and previous guest here) Anke Karstens, but trailed her opponent by 0.75 seconds at the end of the first run. That might sound like a couple of eye-blinks to the uninitiated but in Parallel Slalom it’s a chasm. A mistake at the start of the second run compounded Julia’s fortunes and she slipped further behind. But with the difficult, many-holed last section of the course streaking towards her, Julia started to close the gap: challenging, unforgiving terrain is her territory. Taking all the risks which exemplify her racing style she crossed the line 0.12 seconds ahead and won Austria’s first Olympic snowboarding gold medal.
“I have always had complete trust in my abilities, of course if you are 0.75 seconds behind in your final run there are people who think it is impossible to come back, not me! The most important thing is to know that you have done everything you could in preparation for this run, if you have then there is nothing which will hinder you making the perfect run. If at the end of it your best wasn’t good enough to get the win I am still happy because I know I would do everything the same again.”
Perhaps thanks to Kaprun, perhaps thanks to a sequence of career threatening injuries and to mountains both figurative and real, Julia is the embodiment of a human in the grip of fate: events beyond control will transpire but in honing the self, so the effects of outside circumstances might be influenced for the better. Julia can’t determine the speed of her opponent through the turns nor the condition of the snow come race day. But when it comes to next month’s Games, where she will compete in her preferred event of Parallel Giant Slalom (the shorter Parallel Slalom has been dropped in favour of the Big Air competition), you can be sure she will have sculpted herself relentlessly into condition, both physically and mentally. By February 22nd she will have done everything within her control to line up another gold. Julia doesn’t demand anything from Pyeongchang, only to be at her peak in the prevailing circumstances.
“I don’t really go into the Olympic Games having huge expectations,” she explains. “This kind of mindset will only prove as an obstacle when smaller expectations are not met. I know I am a favourite in my discipline but that doesn’t change my attitude or my approach. What is important to me is achieving the best I can and getting into my flow. If I can achieve this I am satisfied and confident I will win again!”
Success: it’s a concept to be viewed as a subjective entity, its interpretation lying very much in the eye of the beholder. It might manifest itself in the attainment of wealth or power. Or a hut on the beach with a hammock swinging lazily outside. Perhaps not surprisingly, Julia’s definition doesn’t entertain anything resembling an end goal.
“My definition of success is becoming a more improved person every day,” she tells me. “Be that in the physical or mental state. If I am able to achieve this I know I am always moving forward and this will inevitability mean reaching success and living a happy life.”
And as a motivator, Julia advises upcoming athletes to have a reason.
“The most crucial thing is having a vision of where you want to go but even more importantly why you want to go there. Only when you know your why you will be able to keep yourself motivated on rainy days, which will inevitably happen. This will allow you to keep on training, inspire others and build a long lasting career with a strong basis.”
My grateful thanks to Julia for such an inspiring insight into her life and mindset, and to Maximilian Steinbrenner for his assistance in arranging this interview.
The Winter Olympics starts on the 9th February. Julia’s campaign in the Snowboard PGS gets underway on the 22nd. At Pyeongchang the event will take the following format: each racer will make two runs, with the time from each added together. The sixteen racers with the fastest times will progress to the knockout rounds. In a change to the 2014 Games at Sochi, the knockout rounds will be raced over just one run rather than two, with the first to cross the line in each progressing.
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