Alpine skier Frank Prihoda is Australia’s oldest living Olympian and celebrated his 99th birthday yesterday, where his contribution to winter sport was recognised by the Olympic and snow community.
Frank began skiing as an eight-year-old, alongside his sister, Sasha Nekvapil, a Czech ski champion who competed at the 1948 Winter Games in St Moritz, Switzerland.
Initially, he wasn’t as taken by the sport as his older sibling, but his competitive instinct was later epitomised when he literally clawed himself through the gates to complete the Slalom on his Olympic debut.
“It wasn’t until I was about 13 that I began to take the sport seriously,” Frank said.
“My cousin and I went on a ski camp in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, and afterwards joined our older sisters who were at the forefront of women’s skiing in Czechoslovakia.
“Even though we were still young, we would ski with the older elite skiers.
“I remember they were very proud and professional, training regularly and eventually took on the role of teaching and instructing us.
“They taught us all there was to know about skiing, from nordic to downhill, but slalom, which I competed in at the Olympic Games, was seen as more of a novelty until around 1936.”
Frank grew up during World War II, which forced him to grow up quickly. He became a business owner while still a teenager, due to the loss of his father and the poor health of his mother.
“My father died when I was 17 and by the time I was 19, I had to take over the family business,” Frank explained.
“My mother, who was the boss after my father passed away, had a stroke due to the stress of the war, so I became the head of the business.
“Consequently, I didn’t have as much time to train or ski, but I did as much as I could.”
In 1948, the Communist Putsch came into power. They were a strict socialist government and under the regime, Frank’s business was seized and his future was dim.
He decided to flee the country in January 1949 with his brother- in -law, Karel, crossing illegally into Austria where they met up with Sasha, who had just competed at the St Moritz 1948 Games and managed to escape returning home with the team.
The trio found home in Australia, landing in Melbourne on 9 March 1950. Frank took a job in Mt Buller, Victoria where he would operate ski lifts and ski on the weekends.
Frank’s prowess on the slopes was noticed immediately, with Australia fast-tracking Frank’s naturalisation so he could compete for his adopted country at the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Winter Games in Italy.
“The nomination had to be made six months ahead of the Games and by that time, I didn’t have the papers at that point, as you’d needed to be in the country for five years before you could be naturalised,” the Thredbo resident explained.
“By special act of parliament, they made an exception for me and I was absolved of that condition and naturalised earlier so I could compete.”
After all the legalities had been finalised, Frank was officially selected and sent to the US, Canada and Europe to train in December 1956. He arrived in Cortina, Italy, on 22 January 1956, four days out from the Opening Ceremony.
At 35 years-old, Frank competed in the Giant Slalom and Slalom where he placed 80th and 54th respectively.
“With hindsight, I refer to the Olympic Games as hard work and it was made harder due to the conditions,” he said of his Olympic experience.
“There was very little snow so the terrain was very uneven, you would feel every bump and the rocks were very thinly covered which made it quite difficult.
“That was one of the reasons why we were absolved from taking part in the downhill.
“In the Giant Slalom I was quite nervous and got into the first gate, then had a fall,” Frank continued.
“I did better in the Slalom, but I remember there wasn’t much snow and I thought to myself, ‘how are they going to run Slalom on this?’
“There were no snow-makers back then, so they called the Fire Brigade who sprayed the whole slope with water which just created a huge, continuous ice rink down the slope.
“As a result, most of the skiers missed the gates because they slid out and couldn’t correct their course,” he explained.
“I was observing others while waiting for my turn and figured out which was the most dangerous gate, so I knew I had to take that one carefully.
“I did my best, but lo and behold, I started sliding out as well, and in those days, the poles were not like they are today, they were tree saplings firmly embedded into the ground, so I grabbed the inside pole and managed to get through the gate.
“People were laughing, but it was legal, and I had a reasonable result coming 54th, but I was the only one out of our team to finish that race.”
Frank said that although he didn’t finish where he would have liked, representing his adopted country filled him with pride.
“It was a big thing, it meant a lot to me,” he shared.
“I was very proud and humbled that after just five years, I was able to walk under the flag, representing Australia.
“Because of that, all I wanted was to do my best for my adoptive country.”
After Frank competed at the 1956 Games, he relocated to Thredbo and out of his 72 years living in Australia, has spent the last 48 there.
He worked as a ski instructor and also ran a souvenir shop up until he retired at the age of 80.
Incredibly, Frank was still skiing into his 90’s.
Frank says the secret to a long and healthy life is to live it quietly and stay close to nature.
“I think to a great degree, it’s Thredbo,” he said when asked what keeps him young.
“It’s a healthy place with clean living, you’re exposed to nature and all the elements. You have the option to live your life more quietly than you would in the city.
“You can still work hard but regulate your life and mental health better than you would working a high-pressure job.”
On Wednesday 8 July 2020, the day of his 99th birthday, Frank was presented with a special framed letter from AOC President, John Coates AC, which also contained a message from President of the Czech Olympic Committee Jiri Kejval.
Fellow Winter Olympian Jono Brauer, presented the letter while Stuart Diver, Operations Manager of Thredbo Ski Resort and sole survivor of the 1997 Thredbo landslide also announced that a ski slope would be named after Frank, called 'Frank's Face.'