Treasured memories of the Angel of Thredbo
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Treasured memories of the Angel of Thredbo

SASHA NEKVAPIL

Born October 5, 1919 Died June 10, 2014

Sasha Nekvapil with Tommy Tomasi at her brother Frank's 90th birthday party in July 2011.

Sasha Nekvapil with Tommy Tomasi at her brother Frank's 90th birthday party in July 2011.Credit:Chrissi Webb

The much loved and admired past Czech Winter Olympian Sasha Nekvapil died peacefully at the age of 94, in Canberra on June 10, 2014.

Born on October 5, 1919, in Prague, Sasha was christened Alexandra Maria, daughter of Frantisek and Emma (nee Skrivanek) Prihoda.

Sasha Nekvapil at 89 years, about to make first tracks on Thredbo's Merits ski run.

Sasha Nekvapil at 89 years, about to make first tracks on Thredbo's Merits ski run.

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Skiing holidays together with her parents, brother Frank, uncles, aunts and cousins were a regular feature in the family calendar, although Sasha says that she didn't begin skiing properly until she was 15 when she went with friends during school holidays to the Krkonose Mountains.

Sasha began racing at the age of 16 and in her first race placed third in the junior division, much to her disappointment as she was sure she would win.

When World War II came, the group skied in the smaller mountains in the north of Moravia where the championships were held. Due to restrictions on travel by train and no petrol, opportunities to ski during the war were limited. In 1945, Sasha married Karel Nekvapil, son of a restaurant and nightclub /cafe proprietor.

Karel was a keen skier and he was keen for her to race, so he supported her during her ski racing career.

After the war, the first international ski race was held in Zermatt, Switzerland, in 1946. A Czechoslovakian team was sent and Sasha was with them. She placed second in two races.

Following that she competed with the Czechoslovakian team in 1947 and 1948.

Until the 1948 Winter Olympic Games in St Anton, Sasha had never received formal ski tuition. Then a week before the competition, Toni Mart from St Anton was appointed as the team trainer.

Life changed for the Nekvapils following the political upheaval known as the ''Putsch'' in Czechoslovakia in 1948.

As a result of the communist takeover, many people emigrated. Some walked out over the border, which was difficult and dangerous, but many succeeded. After many failed attempts to leave Czechoslovakia during the winter of 1948, it was planned that Sasha should defect after her ski races in Grindelwald in Switzerland with the Czechoslovakian women's team.

When the racers were returning home, they boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, but Sasha left the train and remained in that country. A couple of friends knew of her intentions and threw her luggage off the train, out of view of the team manager, while Sasha also stayed out of sight.

For two months Sasha stayed with a friend in Zurich while she was trying to get Karel and brother Frank to join her. In the meantime Karel and Frank skied out of Czechoslovakia on cross-country skis and made their way to Vienna, Austria, where a contact gave them fake passports and papers.

From there they made their way to St Anton and Arlberg, where the two men joined Tony Sponar and operated a portable ski lift powered by an old army jeep belonging to Frank Prihoda, in nearby St Christoph.

Sasha joined the men there because she couldn't get visas for them into Switzerland. At the end of winter, the lift was packed up and Karel and Sasha headed to Belgium where they spent two years waiting to emigrate somewhere. Australia was the first to offer them a place in which to live.

In 1950, Sasha and Karel landed in Melbourne where her brother Frank was already living and they were based at his residence for eight years.

Six months after their arrival, Sasha and her husband found themselves caretakers of the Australian Postal Institute club lodge at Mount Buller, Victoria, where they also had a ski school called the Arlberg Ski School.

Sasha accepted a ski instructor's position at the chalet at Charlotte Pass in the winter of 1952 while for the next two or three winters, Karel ran the Arlberg Ski School and a cafe. Sasha instructed at the chalet for seven winters.

When Sponar, her friend and head instructor at the Charlotte Pass Ski School, became ill during her second year, she took over the running of the ski school.

During the winters, Sasha and Karel's son Michael stayed with friends in Melbourne. When Michael was bigger, he went to boarding school.

In 1959, Sasha and Karel built a ski lodge at the new ski resort of Thredbo. Called Sasha's Lodge, it was designed by Viennese Otto Ernegg and built by Hungarians Bela Raczko and Steve Scelocski. Sasha and her husband operated the ski lodge for 12 years, after which they sold it and built apartments next door.

With a talent for style, Sasha opened a fashionable ski wear boutique in the apartment building in 1971. Sasha's love of skiing continued.

When the lodge was sold, she was able resume recreational skiing and loved participating in seniors' ski racing both in Australia and overseas, especially in the company of her brother Frank who represented Australia at the Winter Olympics in 1956.

Sasha's race times often put much younger women to shame. She and Karel were very supportive of children's ski racing and organised a race every year for the Thredbo children. Sasha was a founding member of the Thredbo Ski Racing Club, which was established in 1976.

In 1980 Sasha and Karel moved to a farm on the Alpine Way and Sasha ran a little shop called the Snow Crystal in Jindabyne. Following Karel's death in 1992, after a long illness, Sasha moved to Canberra where her son Michael, lived. There she adapted herself to a new life, took up new interests and made new friends. Sasha returned to Thredbo for a two-week ski holiday every year. She stayed with her brother Frank who has been a Thredbo resident since 1974.

At the age of 92, when conditions were good, Sasha was still making first tracks on Merits ski trails and skiing for a couple of hours before the crowds arrived. More than 280 people, many from interstate and the Snowy Mountains, farewelled Sasha at a funeral service at the Chapel of The Christian Community, in Hackett on June 16.

She is survived by her brother Frank, son Michael, daughter-in-law Cheryl , grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Known as ''the Angel of Thredbo'', Sasha Nekvapil touched many people with her enthusiasm and love of the mountains and life. Her important contribution to Australian skiing, including Australian women's ski fashion, will long be remembered.