A blog in the series Stories of the Archives, written by Mike Weston
Amongst members of the BSN community, staff, students and families, past and present, skiing is a very popular leisure activity. I happen to know, for instance, that this year, for the 40 places available on the annual trip to Austria, there were over 60 applications. And we have produced some fine skiers over the years.
One of these was very special indeed, but unless you were involved in the BSN’s recent TEDx event (at which he was a guest speaker) or are of the older generation, you might not be familiar with the name. Yet he was famous once. While still a pupil at the school, just 17 years of age, he took part in the 1972 Olympics, and some years later during the World Cup at Val Gardena his performance in the downhill, in which he finished only 0.11 of a second behind the race winner, caused a French commentator to exclaim in disbelief: “ Ce n’est pas possible! C’est un Anglais.” I am talking of Konrad Bartelski.
One week on the slopes becomes two
Konrad’s father, Jan, was a Pole, a pilot who during the Second World War succeeded in a daring escape from his own country across to England where he flew with the RAF. After the war he moved to The Netherlands and a job as pilot with KLM, and it was here that Konrad grew up. He was a pupil at the then English School of The Hague from 1960 right through to Advanced Levels in 1972. Jan was a very keen skier and each year in January would take his family in their ‘camper’ down to Kitzbühl in Austria for a week on the slopes. From early on it became clear that Konrad was a child of exceptional ability and, stretching the family’s finances, one week gradually grew to two. And people began to notice Konrad. In 1966 he took part in the Dutch National Under 18s at Neustift in Austria and came second in the slalom – at the age of 12!!
A young champion
In 1970, still only 15, he went to Aviemore in Scotland and became the British Junior Men’s champion by winning the giant slalom. I remember once hearing the well-known British sports commentator David Vine saying on TV that in his opinion if Konrad had been born into a skiing nation he would perhaps have been the greatest skier of all time. But unfortunately, Konrad wasn’t, so did not have the huge benefits of financial support, coaching and tradition which would have been available to him. He did however come to the attention of the legendary Kandahar Ski Club based in Mürren, Switzerland and received considerable assistance from them at this early stage in his career.
Flexible school schedule
At the same time, the English School came to a special financial agreement with father Jan so that Konrad could be at school for part of the time as best fitted in around his training. So in February 1972, a few months before his A.L exams there were the Winter Olympics at Sapporo in Japan, then in 1974, after he had left school, the World Championships at St Moritz in Switzerland.
A horrific moment
But then, a few weeks after the championships, a catastrophe. In February 1975, during a downhill race at Megève in France, Konrad was involved in a horrific accident. (It is apparently still looked on as one of the most famous ‘wipes’ ever on the world cup circuit.) Conditions were very bad and his coach had warned him to be careful, but he obviously paid no attention. He flew a long way across the snow and finished up unconscious and with a badly damaged face. At this point, I shall let Konrad himself take over.
“I was lying on the snow for about 45 minutes before the helicopter came to pick me up, so I had a little bit of TV “air” time which was actually quite useful. People weren’t sure if I was dead or alive. But one of my Italian friends who popped into hospital said: ‘Well done – if you’re not going to win the race at least have a good crash and make more money that way
And he was right – from that point on I managed to secure some contracts, and it did help my notoriety on the circuit. It did improve my lifestyle.”
A comeback as no other
After the crash, once he was out of hospital and back on his feet, Konrad was told that he probably wouldn’t ski again. Psychologically, he was told, you’ll never be the same again. You don’t come back after something like that. But they had reckoned without Konrad’s will to succeed. He did resume skiing (although to begin with he had forgotten how ) and he worked his way back up. For several years. And in 1981 his day of glory finally arrived. Val Gardena, Italy. 13th December. The World Championships.
That was the occasion when the French commentator said it wasn’t possible. It was an Englishman. Konrad is beaten into second place by a mere tenth of a second, the fastest time ever recorded by a Brit and one that was to stand for 36 years.
“My motivation had been someday to show that someone from Britain could compete with the Austrians and the Swiss at their own game. And for 13 years I’d been getting on the fringe of it but not really done it. Now I’d achieved what I’d set out to do. And that was significant. To see the Union Jack up on the podium was a very, very special moment. Because everybody said you can’t do it. You know, Britain can never do it.”
Inspiring others @TEDx
Konrad retired from World Championship racing in 1983 but continued as a well-known figure in the skiing world, as a commentator and journalist with BBC TV and radio and Sky TV, as a journalist with various newspapers, and as a producer with Trans World International and ESPN Classic Sport, broadcasting in Italy, France and the UK. Later his career developed in other related areas, in the business world and photography, but they will perhaps be dealt with in some future blog.
For now we will bid him farewell. In doing so I should like to quote what he posted on Facebook after his recent visit to the school:
“Wonderful day spent at the British School of the Netherlands in Voorschoten, by The Hague. A fantastically inclusive and vibrant centre of learning that is years ahead with its spirit of bringing everyone to be together as one. A real honour to be participating in the brilliantly executed TEDx day run by, what was, my old school. Was speaking about “Breaking the Mould” amongst a group of hugely engaging and impressive speakers from 11 years up. Blown away by the talent of the next generation. I leave feeling that the future looks good in their hands.”
Thank you, Konrad. And thank you for being such an inspiration to so many who followed after you at the British School in The Netherlands.
Mr Mike Weston
BSN school archivist, detective and storyteller
Mike came to the English School at The Hague (BSN) in 1972 as Head of German, intending to stay for two years. Now he is in his 47th year at the BSN. Over the years he has taught a range of subjects and has been involved in many school activities. Starting a school archive from scratch and tracing the history of the school is the activity which has given him the most pleasure. Once he reached retirement age, he asked if he could stay on as archivist in hopes to be of service for a while yet. In this capacity, he regularly dives into the archives and comes up with some great stories. His stories are all our stories, enjoy them.