Even during slack season, the Olympic Bar at Michel’s Christiana restaurant fills up during happy hour with a collection of old-school Sun Valley locals. Elegantly dressed and with cocktails, they are eager to greet and tease proprietor Michel Rudigoz. With a warm hug, he greets friends returning to town from his days as a famed ski coach. For the bar regulars, he returns affections with Gallic faux-disdain that inevitably turns into a wide grin. If you haven’t been to the Christiana, you haven’t really been to Sun Valley and the joke might just be on you.
Owning one of the valley’s classic restaurants began as a sideline for Rudigoz, who has coached many top American alpine ski racers, including local Olympians Pete Patterson and Christin Cooper. The moules frites and escargots get served here beside walls covered in old ski photos and memorabilia gathered during Rudigoz’s career from friends and star athletes: a ski from Alberto Tomba, a magazine cover featuring 1984 gold medalist Debbie Armstrong and, back near the wine case, a shot of Jean Claude Killy on skis when he was only a kid.
“Jean Claude, who we called Tou Toune, told me that if I ever went to Idaho I would never go back to France,” Rudigoz said. “He said the girls there are beautiful, the skiing is fantastic and the place has great hunting and fishing.”
Originally from Lyon, France, Rudigoz began his coaching career in the French alps at Val d’Isère, where the young ski instructor was brought under the wing of Honore Bonnet, legendary head coach of the French Ski Team that produced Tou Toune.
“Honore was an icon, very well-respected by everyone,” Rudigoz said. “He was not the greatest skier, but he knew how to put things together, how to talk to his athletes. Each person on a team has a different mentality. He knew to treat them with respect, but also knew that is was not always important that they like you. But you always want your athletes to be happy.”
In “The Story of Modern Skiing,” author John Fry described Coach Rudigoz as “a combination of athletic trainer, psychologist, Solomon, den mother and happy time coordinator.” That recipe of personae served to create what Fry described as the greatest U.S. Women’s Ski Team of all time.
With Bonnet’s mentoring, Rudigoz started by coaching the British Men’s Alpine Team for four years and brought them to the 1972 Olympics.
“They were not that serious about it, but at least they were trying,” he said.
He then coached the U.S. Men’s Alpine Team in the 1978 World Championships. The team included Andy Mill, Phil Mahre and Pete Patterson, who took bronze in the combined event.
“Patterson was born here in the valley,” Rudigoz said. “After he won a bronze medal, he said he was disappointed. I had to tell him how much of a big deal it is to ever, ever win a medal.”
Rudigoz was invited to come to Sun Valley by Lane Monroe, a local skier and coach he met while at a ski camp in the Alps. Rudigoz was by that time friends with many former ski racers who were now working in the ski industry for Dynastar and Rossignol, which meant he could help acquire sponsorships for the best equipment of the day.
In 1982, the year Rudigoz dedicated himself to coaching the U.S. Women’s Alpine Team, the U.S Ski Team won the Nations Cup, an award that went to the country with the most awards overall for that season.
“This was a very big deal for Americans to win against the Austrians, Italians, Germans and Swiss,” he said.
Rudigoz raised funding, hired assistant coaches and oversaw the scheduling and transportation of 10 to 12 young women across Europe for a circuit of races in countries he was familiar with. As they were far from home and sometimes homesick, he encouraged them to spend weekends in Geneva, shopping and enjoying themselves.
“When skiers are that high at the top of competition, they already know how fast they can ski,” Rudigoz said. “But anyone can choke during a race because they want it so bad, but lack confidence.”
Rudigoz said he had to take issue with the frumpy appearance of some of his female athletes while dining in Europe. They were living out of suitcases, and after a long day of training showed up in jeans and even pajamas, with unkempt hair, in contrast to athletes from other countries who went home or off with friends at the end of training days.
“I finally told them that it is important to try harder to better represent the team in public. We are not dirtbags. You are ladies! No matter what happens on the hill during the day, you need to shower up and be presentable.”
Sometime later the women’s team was at a grand lodge in Cortina, Italy. Rudigoz looked up from the ground-floor dining area to see about a dozen young American women in elegant dresses and high heels, wearing lipstick and makeup.
“It was incredible. They were just so beautiful,” he said.
Rudigoz drops his reminiscence to welcome visitors to his restaurant for dinner. He makes a call and hands me the phone. It’s his former trainee and four-time World Cup winner Tamara McKinney.
“We showed him we could dress up that night, but it was also about self-respect,” McKinney said. “Michel created an atmosphere of family, one that looks out for one another while we each work as hard as we can. He gave us permission to be ladies and not just workhorses.”
For six years, Rudigoz guided the U.S. Women’s Alpine Team. In 1984 at the Winter Olympics at Sarajevo, Debbie Armstrong won gold in the giant slalom, with Christin Cooper taking the silver medal.
Rudigoz returns from the bar with cassis in hand and recovers his phone.
“I always told each girl that every time they begin a race that she must put everything out of your mind but herself. At this moment, you are the only thing that matters. This is all about you.”