Olympic medalist Franz Gabl barreled down the slopes and through life

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 1, 2014 

Franz Gabl was full of energy and good humor, attributes that helped him spread his love of skiing throughout Whatcom County and beyond.

A hero in his homeland for winning Austria's first Olympic medal in alpine skiing, he leaves behind a local legacy of promoting skiing at Mount Baker, operating a popular sports shop in downtown Bellingham, and helping to jumpstart the inaugural Ski to Sea race in 1973.

Gabl died in Bellingham on Jan. 23. He was 92.

"There are people who are bright lights, and he was one of them," said Steve Giordano, a Bellingham writer who interviewed and befriended Gabl.

BORN TO SKI

Gable grew up in St. Anton am Arlberg in western Austria, an area that calls itself the "cradle of alpine skiing." As a young ski instructor, Gabl learned from fellow Austrian Hannes Schneider, who founded an early ski school and appeared in movies that helped to popularize the sport. Gabl later joined a wave of Austrians who left Europe to promote and develop the sport.

"The Austrians pretty much went all over North America," said Gabl's daughter, Sarah, who lives in Langley, B.C., and Sudden Valley.

But Gabl's early dreams of skiing were put on hold when he was conscripted into the German army and sent to the murderous Russian front as a machine-gunner during World War II.

"There was no logical reason that he made it out of there," Sarah Gabl said.

Gabl was injured five times. Captured by the Russian army, he escaped a POW camp and survived a 600-mile trek back to his hometown. He emerged from the war forever grateful to have survived.

"He knew that nothing could ever be as bad as the horrors of that war," his daughter said.

After the war, Gabl rebounded to win a silver medal in downhill skiing at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

"Even as an older man he would go back to Austria and, boy, they would celebrate his presence," said Dick Zagelow of Bellingham, who bought Gabl's sports shop in the mid-70s.

COMES TO THE NORTHWEST

In 1950 Gabl accompanied the Austrian ski team to the world championships in Colorado. He opted to stay in North America and became an instructor at several resorts in the United States and Canada. He also coached the 1952 Canadian women's team and the 1956 Canadian men's team for the Olympics.

In 1963 he moved to Bellingham, where he ran the ski shop and ski school at Mount Baker Ski Area, started Mount Baker's bus program for students skiers, and founded one of America's first summer racing camps. Gabl also ran a ski and sports shop in downtown Bellingham from 1967 until 1974.

In 1970 Gabl became part owner of the Mount Pilchuck ski area near Everett, but the venture proved unsuccessful and short-lived.

In the early '70s Gabl was on a Chamber of Commerce committee trying to develop a community event akin to the Mount Baker Marathon, the treacherous bay-to-mountain race of the early 1900s.

His daughter said Gabl became inspired when he heard from a friend about a multi-stage race that included skiing in Switzerland. With Gabl's encouragement, the idea of a similar race in Whatcom County quickly took hold, and Gabl chaired the first Ski to Sea race in 1973, with 73 teams entering the three-stage competition.

"Franz was a big name at the time," said Todd Warger of Bellingham, co-director of "The Mountain Runners," a documentary about the early marathon. "His enthusiasm for this event was toxic, spreading to just the right motivators, because the turnaround from dream to reality was an extremely short time."

Gabl moved to Seattle in the mid '70s, where he worked as a painting contractor during the summer and raced each winter. He skied until he was 77, accumulating some 400 trophies and medals, before he retired in 1990 and returned to Bellingham.

"My husband calls him Superman," Sarah Gabl said. "He didn't have a single varicose vein when he died. He had great legs."

MORE ABOUT GABL

- A celebration of Franz Gabl's life will be held at Broadway Hall, 1300 Broadway, at 1 p.m. Feb. 22. The event will include wienerschnitzel, schnapps and, for dessert, Sacher torte.

- Memorials in Gabl's name may be made to Lighthouse Mission, 910 W. Holly St.

- A fearless skier, Gabl had a challenging ski run named in his honor at Mount Baker Ski Area.

- Gabl wrote two autobiographies: "Franzl," in 1995, and "Franzl II," in 2000.

- His collection of writings, articles and other papers can be viewed at the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Washington University.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-229 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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