Australia’s oldest living Olympian, alpine skier Frank Prihoda, will celebrate his centennial this Thursday in his home resort of Thredbo.
Born in 1921 in Prague Czechoslovakia, Frank has lived through The Great Depression, World War II, the moon landing, the technological revolution and more.
Entering a world plagued by The Great Depression, Frank considered himself lucky. His father, a prosperous artificial flower manufacturer, often took the family on car trips into the countryside in his American Hudson.
“Europe was in turmoil and I only came to realise it later in life, as a little child you do not grasp these things,” says Frank.
As a teenager, Frank strapped on skis for the first time. In 1936 Frank began ski racing with the Czechoslovakian Ski Federation squad. Skis were by Frank’s side at every major milestone during the decades of his life from his escape during a communist revolution to representing his new home country at the 1956 Winter Olympics.
“Just before the war in 1937, I went for my first downhill race. All week it was sunny and of course, the day of the race a blizzard came and I wore glasses. I couldn’t see a thing, they got frozen. I had a mighty tumble and that was my first race,” says Frank.
It wasn’t all lost, however, as this race was where Frank met one of Thredbo’s founders, Tony Sponar. A man with whom he remained lifelong friends and who influenced his road to Thredbo.
In 1937, Frank was taken away from training and endless days on the slopes when tragedy struck. Following the sudden death of his father and subsequent death of his mother, out of necessity, Frank went on to run the family’s manufacturing business with his skis taking a backseat.
Following the second world war, Frank believed his business success would be negatively impacted by the country’s move into a People’s Republic.
“I was a manufacturer and an employer and, my father was an employer. We were deemed to be bourgeois. Bourgeois is the enemy of people like the working class, as such, I saw I had no future [in the country],” explains Frank.
He, alongside his brother-in-law, Karel Nekvapil decided to make their escape from czechoslovakia to austria on skis.
In January 1949, a friend drove to the south of Czechoslovakia, reaching a wide frozen lake bordering Austria. Strapping back in, Karel and Frank set out on cross-country skis “for an outing.”
He recalls many armed guards in the area as they slid across the lake, explaining he eventually noticed a herd of deer which indicated a lack of militia and an opportunity to escape to the country beyond.
Arriving in Austria, his pathway to being recognised as a refugee was not an easy one, however, he and Karel were eventually able to join his sister Sasha Nekvapil and friend Tony Sponar in St Anton. Here they ran a ski tow powered by Frank’s jeep before making the move to a new life in Australia.
In 1950 Frank and his family boarded a ship to distant Australia, skis in tow. On arrival to Australia, Frank began working in the manufacture of artificial flowers for the second time in his life before moving over to the furniture and textile trades. Never too far from his love of skiing, Frank took to the slopes during his second winter, making his way to Mt Buller and enjoying the social life of the Melbourne University Ski Club.
Frank quickly stood out on the slopes and within a few short years, he qualified for the 1956 Winter Olympics. Following his citizenship grant only a few months prior, Frank went on to represent Australia in Slalom and Giant Slalom events.
“I went to the Olympics in 1956. I remember standing on the Olympic run and the full experience was overwhelming because none of us [in the Australian team] were used to the atmosphere of big races.”
In 1958 Frank became Chairman of the Race Committee of the Victorian Ski Association before moving to Thredbo to join his family in 1974. Frank’s sister and brother-in-law had opened the second lodge ever built in Thredbo, Sasha’s Lodge, which still stands stoically today under the name Black Bear Inn.
Frank was invited to open a gift shop in the small alpine village where he sold gifts to those visiting the snowy region for the next twenty-seven years.
In 2000, Frank took pride of place carrying the Olympic Torch in Thredbo, lighting the cauldron on the Village Green. More recently, Frank became a foundation member of the Thredbo Historical Society.
Frank’s love for skiing has never dwindled. He spent 46 years skiing Thredbo’s long slopes and often speaks of his love for the mountains, the views, the freedom and the feeling of being a tiny speck in the vastness of nature.
In his 89th year, Frank hung up his skis.
Although no longer enjoying the slopes himself, Frank still has the passion of a man ready to strap on his boots. He can be found with a listening ear, ready to hear about others’ days on the mountain.
In 2020, a ski run was named after Frank to honour the man who continues to make such a profound impact on the community of Thredbo. Joining those who were there for his life journey with him, his run, Frank’s Face, sits alongside Sponars T-Bar, Sashas Schuss and Karels T-Bar.
“Having the Frank’s Face trail located between Karels T-Bar and Sashas Schuss gives me great pleasure and feels like family,” says Frank.
Currently still living in Thredbo, locals often see Frank driving his white Subaru around the village. His advice following 100 years of enriching life experiences?
“Adventures. Don’t be afraid to take risky situations, go through them and try and do it for yourself. If you sit on your back and don’t do these things you will short change yourself and miss out on life experiences.”