From issue: Winter 2004
Paul Titus explores a prominent family in New Zealand's alpine history.
Nine-year-old Annelise learnign ski-racing techniques at Porter Heights in Canterbury
Photo: Courtesy of the Coberger family
Coberger is the name associated with the first competitor from the Southern Hemisphere to win a medal in the Winter Olympics, a silver in the slalom at the 1992 Games in Albertville, France. But, through Annelise Coberger's immediate forbears, the name was already imbedded in the history of New Zealand skiing.
Oscar Coberger arrived in New Zealand from Germany in 1926, and taught skiing at the Hermitage, Mt Cook. The sport was a novelty but the older Coberger could see that the easy access by train from Christchurch gave Arthur's Pass the potential to become an important ski area. He set up a shop there to sell skis and mountain-climbing equipment imported from Europe. It was one of the only places in New Zealand such gear was available.
Anton Coberger says that, in 1936, his father commissioned the Ford Motor Company's assembly plant in Lower Hutt to build a flatbed truck with a double cab. The older Coberger used it to sell his unique wares to aspiring skiers and climbers around the country, and his son believes it was the forerunner of the truck that became the standard Kiwi farm vehicle.
When Coberger junior joined his father's business in 1961, he added a shop on Cranmer Square in Christchurch. It soon became bigger than the original, and the Arthur's Pass shop closed in 1965.
Annelise Coberger was 11 when her grandfather died in 1982 and she has early recollections of being on the slopes with him.
"People often tell me stories about Oscar and the early days of skiing." She says. "I love hearing them. He obviously left his mark."
As a youngster, Coberger skied with her older brother, Nils, older sister, Adele, and other children at the Porter Heights ski field in Canterbury.
"There was a strong family atmosphere at Porter Heights. There were lots of kids the same age as us, and there was a race programme I was involved with when I was young," Coberger says.
"Porter Heights is just an hour and a quarter from Christchurch. We used to go up every weekend, and we would spend holidays at the club lodge. The lodge was great. Parents and kids slept in separate rooms. The kids' rooms slept nine and had bunks three beds high. How cool was that!
"There was a big main room where everyone ate. The adults were rostered on to do the cooking and kids did the cleaning. There were board games and cards, and we entertained ourselves. The lodge also had a tuck shop, so there was a constant supply of sugar.
"It would be nice to see some of the ski huts and clubs preserved because they represent that early era of do-it-yourself Kiwi skiers."
At first ski racing was more fun than serious for the young skier. When she was 14, she went to the United States during the Southern Hemisphere summer for additional training. In her sixth-form year of high school, Coberger decided to take the sport seriously and focus on it rather than do her seventh-form year.
She developed a schedule of alternating training in Queenstown and St Anton am Arlberg in Austria. A few short stints were spent working at her father's ski shop but her main focus was training.
"I switched my summer training to Europe because there are better programmes and more competitions than in the US, and Europeans are more passionate about skiing. I trained in the Arlberg region in Austria. People there are obsessed with skiing. For a village to have an Olympic skier is a very big thing. They are celebrities.
"Skiing was still a bit of an unknown in New Zealand, so it was difficult to get financial support at first. There are great mountains in New Zealand but you need complete backing to ski at an international level. I always had the media and the public on my side, and eventually Queenstown backed me. They put everything at my disposal. The city paid for training and accommodation, and Coronet Peak ski field was hugely supportive."
St Anton am Arlberg also fully supported Coberger's competitive career with accommodation, training and lift passes. She says plenty of New Zealanders and Australians worked in St Anton, which made it fun.
Being based in New Zealand gave Coberger something of an advantage over Northern Hemisphere skiers during the off-season because she had several months of training rather than a few weeks. Between the northern and southern ski seasons, she visited home in Christchurch.
"I loved my time in Christchurch in the spring and autumn; especially the spring. My family and friends were here and I just had to do physical training in running, weights, cycling. I always stayed at the family home. I didn't technically leave home until I was 24."
Coberger skied in World Cup events for several years after her Olympic victory. She was second overall in the World Cup slalom rankings the following season and remained in the top 15 for two more years. She lost the drive to compete at that level, however, and, after completing a diploma at Otago University, joined the police force. She started her police career in Lower Hutt.
"I had lived in a protected environment, so the first six months were the biggest learning curve I had ever been on. I had to learn quickly but I loved it. It is very satisfying helping good guys catch bad guys."
Coberger is on maternity leave from the police waiting for the birth of her second daughter, due in June. Her oldest child, Zoe, is two. Coberger says she has not done much skiing since she has been in the police but she cannot wait to get into it with her daughters.
Paul Titus is the principal in Titus Writes , a network of freelance writers, photographers and graphic artists.