After Adolf Hitler's storm troopers invaded Austria in 1936 at the outbreak of World War II, Paula Kann--now Paula Kann Valar--was a 14-year-old Austrian schoolgirl studying in England.
Her father, a successful lawyer and avid skier who practiced law in a village near the Lower Alps, contacted her, telling her not to dare to come home. Shortly thereafter, Paula and her father departed for New York -- her mother was left behind in Austria, and was unable to to join them until eight years later.
"My father and I came to New York in 1940. Then we heard that Hannes Schneider was in North Conway, where he'd come to teach skiing after being released by the Nazis in Austria," recalled Paula at age 62 and the owner of Valar Sports with her husband, Paul, at Mittersill Ski Area in Franconia. An amateur photographer, Paula's father soon headed north to the Eastern Slope Region to the new home of the Austrian ski great and father of the Arlberg turn method, and set up a photography shop on Main Street in North Conway. Paula was 18 at the time.
A skier since the age of five, young Paula quickly became a protege of Schneider's, picking up where she'd left off in Austria before the war. "I first started racing when I lived in Austria at age 14, where I used to beat all the boys. But then the war put an end to that," Paula related.
She soon made up for lost time by watching the techniques of the instructors used by Schneider at his Eastern Slope Ski School in North Conway. When she was 20, she raced in the 1942 Harvey Dow Gibson Race International Championship in 1945, and was named to the national team from 1945-1950.
Her list of achievements is impressive--winner of the 1946 national downhill championships, and being the 3rd place finisher in the overall combined events; recipient of the "Best American Skier" title in 1947, and the winner of the national slalom at Sun Valley in 1947. As she noted, "Whenever I was the champion, I placed in the top three for the combined events -- giant slalom, slalom and downhill."
Of the three disciplines, Paula preferred the giant slalom, but explained that, in those years, everyone had to be competent in all three. "I prefereed the giant slalom, but back then, you had to do it all. They allowed everone only one pair of skis, which had to be stamped so you couldn't switch them," she said. "That meant I used the same 6'9" skis for all three events."
Following the war, the Olympic games resumed in 1948 at St. Moritz, Switzerland. Competing in the slalom, Paula finished 11th out of 28 racers, a showing that was disappointing. As she noted, "I had pneumonia at the time, and I didn't agree with the way the coaches treated us all the same. People are different--coaches should be aware of the personalities of their athletes."
At age 24, Paula felt she knew what was best for her, but the coaches felt otherwise. "They had us all in bed by 8:30 p.m., and on the slopes training every day. I always raced better if I skied only two to three times a week," she continued, " as it allowed me to keep the spark. If you ski too much, you lose it."
Despite the 11th-place showing, Paula says with pride that the finish still had its respective merits. "When Hitler invaded my country and talked about his 'superior race,' I told my mother, 'Mummy, someday I'm going to prove him wrong.' Well," she proudly noted, "Not one German finished ahead of me. So my childish goal was achieved."
After the '48 Olympics, Paula became a pro ski instructor at the old Thorne Mountain in Jackson; and also served as the director of its ski school. She married Swiss national team member Paul Valar in 1950 and moved to Mittersill ski area, where she directed the ski school for 23 years while Paul directed his school at neighboring Cannon and Sunapee ski areas.
Paula, who served as the first and only woman examiner of the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) for 20 years, worked with Paul on their dairy farm in Vermont summers while serving as ski equipment reps at other times of the year. Not surprisingly, their four daughters all became involved with the ski industry, both as racers and instructors. "Skiing has been a way of life for all of us," said Paula.
Named to the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1972, Paula still looks back at her Olympic experience as the highlight of her career. "After all these years," she said, "I can still remember the thrill of walking into that stadium at the opening ceremonies. The camaraderie was terrific, and the Italians were so good to us. Since it was the first Olympics after the war, the press kept trying to pit the Germans against the Norwegians or Americans against Italians, saying, 'Oh, you fought against one another,' but the athletes didn't look at it that way. For us," she said, "it was wonderful."
NOTE: Born Feb. 1, 1922, Paula Kann Valar passed away on Nov. 2, 2001.