They don’t call him The Kaiser (the king) for nothing. Austria’s Franz Klammer made the downhill famous with his reckless, go-for-broke run in the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics. The last among the top seeded racers to go, 22-year old Klammer battled a chewed up course, nearly crashing in multiple turns, flying off jumps, and practically giving the home crowd a collective anxiety attack on his way to gold medal glory.
Sometimes, a gold medal transcends Olympic glory and becomes a win for human rights. Such was the case in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when Germany’s Carina Vogt collected female ski jumping’s first ever gold medal. Though women had been ski jumping for 100 years, the IOC didn’t feel they should compete in the Olympics. It was only one of two events (the other being Nordic combined) that didn’t allow both genders. Following a 2010 lawsuit, women finally earned their right to compete, and Vogt won gold by soaring 342 feet in a jump that spanned nearly a century of Winter Olympic sexism.
Jonny Moseley knew he’d won the Olympics even before he’d landed his final trick. It was the 1998 Nagano Games, and Moseley — a laid-back kid from Tiburon, California — came into the competition on fire, with multiple World Cup moguls wins to his name. But now he had a secret weapon, the 360 mute grab. Inspired by snowboarders, who were making skiing look staid in comparison, Mosely upended the sport of freestyle mogul skiing with his new school move. The biggest hurdle was the pressure. Having qualified as number one, Moseley had to wait all day at the stop of the steep bumps course. Battling nerves, he laid down a flawless run, and by the time he’d launched off the final jump and rotated in the air, he knew gold was his. Freestyle skiing would never be the same again.
In the fickle sport of downhill ski racing, where speeds can exceed 80 miles an hour and racers have one shot down a steep, icy track, things rarely go according to plan. Which is why gold medal favorites often flame out. Apparently nobody told Lindsey Vonn. The odds favorite for gold in the downhill at the Vancouver Olympics, Vonn didn’t let any jitters derail her destiny, storming down the Whistler course and blitzing the field by over half a second to collect America’s first female downhill gold medal.
Italy’s Alberto Tomba became a household name during the 1988 Calgary Olympics, first for winning both the men’s slalom and giant slalom, then for asking figure skater Katarina Witt out on a date. But it wasn’t until the 1992 Albertville Olympics that the man known as Tomba La Bomba would go down in the record books. With the world watching, Tomba kept his cool on the precariously steep Face de Bellevarde to win another giant slalom gold, becoming the first alpine skier to repeat as Olympic champion.
Sometimes missing a gold medal can be a bigger moment than actually winning one. Though that probably comes as little consolation to Lindsey Jacobellis. A three-time X Games winner and the reigning World Champion, the American came into the 2006 Torino Olympics as the odds on favorite to win the Snowboardcross, a white knuckle event that sees multiple snowboarders battling it out simultaneously down the same race course. With a huge lead and the finish line in sight, Jacobellis had all but clinched the gold medal. Instead, she launched off the course’s penultimate jump, attempted a method grab, lost control and crashed. Jacobellis would get back on her feet and cross the line for silver, but it was a paltry prize by comparison to what might — and should — have been.
It’s hard to get a more storybook result than the 2002 men’s snowboarding halfpipe podium. Competing in front of home crowds in the birth nation of the sport, the pressure was on the U.S. team to perform. A medal was expected. A gold was perferred. But a complete sweep? Now that would be downright greedy, wouldn’t it? Well, that’s exactly what Ross Powers, Danny Kass and Jarret Thomas did at the Salt Lake Olympics, laying down textbook runs to collect gold, silver and bronze. But it was Powers’ run that elevated the young Olympic sport from athleticism to art. Dropping in for his final run, the native Vermonter sewed up the win with an 18-foot method grab that was one of the highlights of those games.
The word phenom seems tailor made for America’s Mikaela Shiffrin. At 16, she won the U.S. National Championships in slalom. At 17 she won her first World Cup race, followed closely by claiming the World Championships title a few months later. It was only fitting, then, that the talented teen would win Olympic slalom gold in Sochi at the tender age of 18, becoming the youngest slalom champ in Olympic history. Now a powerhouse in all five alpine events, look for Shiffrin to collect multiple medals in PyeongChang.
France’s Jean-Claude Killy was so dominant at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics that fans and media alike rechristened the games the Killympics. Both fast and stylish, the brash 24-year old Frenchman became only the second skier in alpine history to sweep the Olympic games, winning the downhill, giant slalom and slalom. But it was the latter that proved the most difficult. With a thick fog enveloping the course, racer after racer did not finish. It would take steely nerves and gutsy skiing for Killy to collect his third gold and enter the record books.
Donna Weinbrecht might have mined gold in France, but her win in the 1992 Albertville Olympics was made in America. Not only did the nascent Olympic sport of freestyle skiing begin in this country (it was known as hot dog skiing back in the 1970s), but Weinbrecht — with her flowing blond hair and cheerful demeanor — felt like the quintessential American girl. But below that persona was a fierce competitor, and her flawless run through a blinding snowstorm was good enough for freestyle’s first ever gold medal.