Jens Weißflog, Sylke Otto, René Sommerfeldt – the full list of prominent sportsmen and women who were trained at Oberwiesenthal, won world cup competitions and brought back Olympic medals to Saxony is actually much longer. But how exactly are winners made? A visit to the region’s elite school for Nordic ski sports provides an insight.

Laughter and loud music ring out from the training hall. This is where a group of 16- to 18-year-old cross-country and Nordic combined skiers are completing their morning strength training. From time to time, they disappear one by one to the room with the tilting treadmill for a performance diagnostics session. They are supervised there by Lutz Hänel, head coach at the training centre and himself a former cross-country skier. The athletes sprint on roller skis at a skating pace on an inclined treadmill. Viewed from the side, it looks very fast and extremely strenuous. “Our fastest boys reach 36 km per hour and our best girls nearly 31 km per hour,” says Hänel. The young athletes learn how to move at high speeds using just a few steps and as little energy as possible. He calls it “biodynamically effective”. It’s a good example of the training methods at the centre. “We are moulding an elite group here – educationally, morally and athletically,” says Hänel, confidently.

A clearly defined goal: the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea

“My clear aim is to reach the Olympics,” says young cross-country skier Katharina Hennig, aged 17, who has been at Oberwiesenthal for five years. Her teammate Jenny Mann, 18, adds: “That means we need to be accepted into the regional squad so we can carry on after we leave school.” Although Katharina and Jenny have only just returned from the Junior World Ski Championships in the Italian ski resort of Val di Fiemme, they are already back to their familiar training routine. The attention of everyone here is firmly focused on the Olympic Games in Sochi, particularly as Olympic competitors Denise Herrmann and Claudia Nystad come from Oberwiesenthal. Katharina and Jenny describe the pair as “down to earth, very nice and real role models”.

Here, the focus is on the individual

“It’s your head that makes you a winner,” explains coach Lutz Hänel. It’s always about a combination of athletic performance and a strong psyche. Hänel demands a great deal – from others and also from himself. The young people he works with describe him as “firm but fair”. For him, the little extra something that helps make Saxons so successful when it comes to sport lies in “being human”. By that, he means taking the athletes seriously, respecting their individual attributes and teaching them how to handle defeat – and victory. He also regards education as very important. Lutz Hänel says: “Here, it’s not a case of sport first and school second. It’s about both education and sport.“ Hänel knows that no more than a handful of his training group will reach professional level in their sport. But he’s not worried about the others because he knows that they are all very well equipped to cope with life thanks to their excellent education and training. Just like fellow coach Lars Lehmann, in fact. He was a young, up-and-coming athlete at the centre until 2002 and then went on to study sports science. Lehmann says: “Studying wasn’t a problem for me. Having the self-discipline to learn, giving it my best effort – I already knew how to do that.” Since 2012, he has been the coach responsible for the centre’s 12- and 13-year-olds and loves being “back home” after ten years, coaching the winter sport champions of the future.