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Branko Zagar, coach of the Sierra Nevada College ski teams, stands in front of the Prim Library at the SNC campus in Incline Village.

Bonanza Photo – Matthew Renda

By Matthew Renda
North Lake Tahoe Bonanza

Meet your neighbor Branko Zagar, ski coach at Sierra Nevada College. Zagar presides over one of the most successful collegiate athletic programs in the nation, as either the male or female ski team has garnered a United States Collegiate Ski & Snowboard Associations national championship in 19 of the last 20 years.

Since Zagar assumed the helm of the respective squads in 2007, either the men or women have brought home championship hardware every year. In 2010, the men's ski team won the overall national championship, placed first in the giant slalom and second in the slalom. The women did not fare much worse, finishing second in the nation and placing second in the slalom and giant slalom, respectively.

Zagar's journey from his hometown village of Ravne na Koroskem, nestled in the northern portion of Slovenia — a former province of Yugoslavia until it declared full sovereignty in 1991 — to Incline Village is a lengthy one.

Slovenia has a fervid love affair with downhill skiing — it is the national sport — as access to the Alps means Slovenian citizens have access to terrain on which to hone their skills.

Zagar was on skis by age three and was racing by the age of six.

Previous to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, Zagar was on the Yugoslavian national team and was a highly ranked junior racer, accumulating the most FIS (International Ski Federation) points for anyone of his age at one stage in his career.

After Zagar's individual career as a ski-racer fizzled, he began transitioning to coaching. He married his wife, and when she became pregnant with his daughter, the Zagars began to consider relocation.

“Being a ski racer means you get to travel a lot,” Zagar said. “By the time I was 15, I saw most of Europe. The village my wife and I grew up in only has 7,000 people. I wanted my children to be exposed to more.”

So the Zagars considered emigrating to Australia or the United States, before finally choosing the Lake Tahoe area, where Zagar was a ski school instructor and ski-race coach for Heavenly Ski Resort.

Zagar recalls the first day in the Lake Tahoe Basin as one of the worst of his life.

“My wife and I flew in during a bad winter storm in November,” Zagar said. “The plane barely landed because the wind was blowing; there was snow everywhere and we didn't know anybody. It wasn't until about five days later, when the storm passed and we saw the lake that we figured out this place is really nice.”

After a couple of seasons at Heavenly, Zagar began helping coach the Sierra Nevada College Eagles and eventually took over as the head ski coach and the winter sports coordinator.

“We have great athletes and great personalities,” Zagar said. “I really enjoy working with them and they have accepted me as their coach.”

Zagar said the most important element of becoming a good skier is diligence and a willing to outwork your opponents.

“We train five days a week with races on weekends,” he said.

The Eagles compete in four races throughout the Tahoe Basin, then in a regional competition, before advancing to nationals. Athletes from the team often compete in miscellaneous NCAA ski race events so the athletes can measure themselves against the best collegiate competition.

Zagar said the college's success is largely due to the administration giving Zagar a free hand to recruit the best available athletes from inside the region and Europe.

European colleges do not offer skiing through their athletic departments, which is why Zagar keeps in touch with former contacts and uses current athletes to stay abreast of emerging skiers.

While Zagar makes his living off the winter, he said his favorite part of living in Tahoe, is going to the beaches in the summer with his family (his wife and two children, a son and a daughter) and his two dogs — a German shepherd and a French mastiff.

“We love this area,” he said.