February 20, 2018 / 6:41 AM / 8 months ago

FEATURE-Olympics-Alpine skiing-'Magic Heinzi' gives Vonn the edge in downhill

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Just before Lindsey Vonn embarks on her run in the Olympic downhill on Wednesday, a nervous 55-year-old Austrian will hand her a pair of skis that he believes will be the fastest on the mountain.

Heinz Haemmerle, or "Magic Heinzi" as Vonn calls him, is the American's service rep and in a sport that can be decided by hundredths of a second, his work in preparing her skis can be the difference between winning and losing.

In the nine years the pair have been working together, it has mostly been the former as the now 33-year-old Minnesotan has become the most successful woman skier of all time.

"That's something to be proud of," Haemmerle told Reuters in his temporary workshop, a shipping container at the bottom of the Jeongseon downhill run.

"It's worked many times and I hope it continues like that. We are trying hard, she is pushing, I am pushing, and I would say we fit perfectly together.

"She trusts me and I trust her and that's how it should be. She has to concentrate on her stuff and I concentrate on mine, she has to believe in me."

Haemmerle will spend six to seven hours a day in his workshop during the Pyeongchang Olympics, carefully applying two or three layers of fluorocarbon wax to the wooden bottom of the skis and sharpening the metal edges.

For all the metal brushes and waxes on his bench, a large part of his work is digesting the information provided by the wax companies, coaches and his own trips up the mountain to determine what kind of snow and temperatures can be expected.

Even more important than that though, he said, was listening to Vonn.

"The key factor is to talk to Lindsey, she knows exactly how she needs the edges and she talks to me, say 'I want to have it sharper' or whatever," he said.

"I always make it as sharp as possible anyhow because it's easier to dull it up at the start than making it sharper."

Haemmerle brought 30 pairs of skis to Pyeongchang -- Vonn uses the longer men's skis -- and he will prepare two sets for race-day before deciding which to take up in the gondola and hand over to the American at the start.

Then ensues the wait of 100 or so seconds when he gets to see whether his labour bears fruit.

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"I am always nervous, you are never 100 percent sure she will do it, she can make a mistake or whatever," he added.

"If I am not nervous anymore, then I have to quit. If I do the job just to have a job instead of full power in there, then it's not my work anymore.

"She's concentrating on skiing and I'm concentrating on skis."

Haemmerle has been concentrating on skis for most of his adult life and Vonn is by no means the first champion he has worked with.

After trying and failing to become a ski racer -- "I wasn't very good but I did always have fast skis" -- he spent two years working in his father's carpentry business before finding a job as a rep with the Head manufacturer.

In his time at Head, he worked with a who's who of champion skiers, including Patrick Ortlieb, Hans Olsson, Hannes Trinkl, Armin Assinger and 1980 Olympic men's downhill champion Leonhard Stock.

"I started with Ortlieb when he was young, I made world champion out of him, Olympic champion," he recalled.

"If you are at the top, the athletes ask about you, they want to have this rep. They call me 'magic'. That's why they sign sometimes."

Haemmerle had worked with American Bode Miller for three years when Vonn made the switch from French manufacturer Rossingnol, the assignment of "Magic Heinzi" as her rep a clincher in the deal.

In their first season together, Vonn won 11 times on the World Cup circuit to take a third straight overall title along with gold in the downhill and bronze in the super-G at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

The winning has rarely stopped since and the sight of Vonn on top of the podium does ease Haemmerle's nerves, temporarily at least.

"You calm down and relax a bit," he said. "But then I'm always thinking forward to decide which ski I'll use for the next training run, which ski I'll use for the final and so on... " (Additional reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by John O'Brien)

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