"Many people perceived him as handsome or even as beautiful. He evidenced an androgynous, Nijinsky-like quality. In physical features he reminded me of a Tartar from the Eastern European steppes, with slanted Mongolian eyes yet light skin. He was small. He was fine. He was a steady, nerveless competitor, completely lacking in personality or finesse: a generic Soviet-satellite skater who had been browbeaten into becoming a fine technician—less fine in free skating and more precise or womanlike in the school figures."
— Toller Cranston
From the outside looking in, success can seem like an overnight process: a nobody one day and a star the next. Add the disconnection we have from most of history, and it can be difficult to see how much effort goes into the careers of the greats. That is not an issue with Ondrej Nepela, Olympic gold medalist, a man whose own coach admitted he wasn't "particularly talented."
Born in 1951 in the city of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, Nepela fell in love with figure skating while watching the 1958 European Championships. Seeing him dancing along in front of the TV, his mother brought him to the ice rink and he began figure skating at only seven years old. It was two weeks into his skating practice that his mother approached Hilda Múdra about coaching the young boy, as the other coaches seemed to ignore him. Hilda Múdra would go on to become Nepela’s lifelong coach.
The two became very close over time, and Nepela learned more than skating from her. Múdra would go on to describe their relationship saying:
“Our third child. Docile in everything. He knew German from me. In Bolzano, where I trained for a year, he picked up some Italian, mastered English. When he became a coach, he often called me, he asked for advice. He has never been ashamed that he does not know anything, "
That is not to say that their relationship took time away from their training. Nepela trained long and hard, and it paid off. Within six years Nepela was competing in the Winter Olympic Games of 1964 at the age of 13. He ranked 22. Their work did not stop, and over the next decade he went on to win every possible figure skating title.
With this level of success and dedication, it was clear that he loved his work, and according to his coach it was one of his only passions:
“All his life, when he was among us, he was just talking about figure skating. He had almost no other interests. When I was, for example, training Filco, he could talk about politics and everything. But Ondrej was just for figure skating. In a revue and calling me by phone home, he just told me about our common figure skating acquaintances, and what triple leaps in the revue he jumped, it just always revolved around figure skating.”
This focus seemed to pay off though:
“Ondrík wasn't particularly talented. For example, Marián Filc or Miro Šoška had higher expectations. But Nepela was extremely diligent. He did not refuse to ask repeatedly what he did not understand, he had things explained a hundred times. My lieutenant really was flawless. And finally - after the obligatory exercises, he had such a head start that he could rub his ass on the ice. "
He was known for his humility and hard work throughout the field; other skaters often said they didn't even mind losing to him. Nearly everyone who knew him would talk about his dedication and passion for the sport, almost always followed by how much he practiced. He was not naturally talented, but he put the hours in to be the best.
With this love, of course, came criticism as well. Some said he was almost too perfect. While he did have the precision, most agreed that he lacked the personality of many others. Even his coach admitted he wasn't musically inclined.
This didn’t seem to matter much though, as he continued skating and winning, becoming one of Czechoslovakia’s most well-known and celebrated athletes.
With success also came the ever-present burden of expectation, not only to succeed but also to fit into the perfect ideal of masculinity. He was a star in Czechoslovakia, and that stardom did not allow for his attraction and relationships with men. The final straw came when he had bodyguards following him everywhere he went. He became so overwhelmed by the lack of freedom that in 1973, he retired.
He then moved to Germany, building a new life with new friends, ones that even his beloved coach wouldn’t get to meet before he died. But while he left his country and his performing career, he didn’t give up on his passion, becoming a coach himself, and always keeping in contact with his own mentor asking for advice whenever he needed it.
While he had far more freedom in Germany, he also developed health problems. At the age of 38, he died from cancer of the lymph nodes. His death is often attributed to complications due to AIDS.
Though his life was short, it was filled with love and accomplishments. The people closest to him remembered him fondly, and he is still regarded as one of the best in his field. He was named Slovakian Athlete of the Century in 2000. His legacy is one filled with admiration and respect; even those who thought he wasn't talented knew he worked for his place. Even though he started young, it is clear that figure skating did not come easy to him; it was his love for the sport that allowed him to overcome any barriers he faced.
Throughout his life, figure skating remained a cornerstone. Even when he stopped performing, he never left the community. The community responded in kind, never leaving him either. After his death, a sports stadium was named after him, and his face is even on a Slovakian stamp. Though his life was short, he is remembered for all his did.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
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Fukatsch, P. (2018). Nepela ju volal teta. Ona bola i mamou. Denník SME. Retrieved from https://bratislava.sme.sk/c/20397532/nepela-ju-volal-teta-ona-bola-i-mamou.html
Koymasky, A, & Koymasky, M. (2004). Ondrej Nepela. Retrieved from http://andrejkoymasky.com/liv/fam/bion1/nepela01.html
Na otázky odpovedala Hilda Múdra. (2008). Správy. Retrieved from https://spravy.pravda.sk/otazky-a-odpovede/455-na-otazky-odpovedala-hilda-mudra/
Ondrej Nepela, Figure Skater, 38. (1989). The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1989/02/07/obituaries/ondrej-nepela-figure-skater-38.html
Szőcsová, A. (2011). Naša najväčšia hviezda žiarila na ľade. Retrieved from https://style.hnonline.sk/vikend/384843-nasa-najvacsia-hviezda-ziarila-na-lade