Why Angela Merkel tests herself on the ski slopes

The German chancellor, who was injured while skiing, had trouble even walking up stairs as a child. The fact she was skiing at all illustrates her effort to overcome such challenges.

Thomas Peter/Reuters/File
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestured with her crutch during a reception at the Chancellery in Berlin in April 2011. Ms. Merkel fractured her pelvis in a cross-country skiing accident and is walking with the help of crutches, forcing her to call off some foreign visits and official appointments, her spokesman said today.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's skiing accident over the holidays in Switzerland has not raised questions of speed and risk. Indeed, the image of daring runs down steep slopes would contradict everything we know about Merkel's slow and methodical manner.

But skiing – and perhaps even the fall itself – does fit into the larger picture of a woman who has overcome physical challenges all her life. The German chancellor is well known for the athletic inadequacies that marked her youth.

While writing a profile of Ms. Merkel ahead of German federal elections in September, my sources mentioned the overcoming of those physical issues as a defining characteristic of her style of governance. I heard it so often that I chose to begin the piece with her early dreams of being a figure skater, an improbable fantasy given her inability to even cross a balance beam, as she told journalist Margaret Heckel.

Stefan Kornelius, the international affairs editor at Süddeutsche Zeitung who wrote a book about her and has tracked her moves throughout her career, told me that, as a child, she had great troubles mounting steps or walking up hills. He thinks that contributed to the formation of a strategic mind that takes intellectual steps before physical ones – she couldn't afford to “walk up the stairs” for nothing.

She has come a long way from those early challenges. As I was talking to people in Berlin about her during my reporting last August, she was actually on vacation in Europe (reportedly in Austria) taking one of her annual walking trips. Her New Year's resolution for 2014 is to get “more fresh air,” according to Derek Scally at The Irish Times.

For now, it seems that resolution will have to be put on hold. Merkel was in the alpine Engadine region of eastern Switzerland, near the resort of St. Moritz, when she fell while cross-country skiing. She originally dismissed it as bruising, but at a doctor's visit on Friday she learned that part of her pelvis was cracked. She has been ordered to lie down as much as possible for three weeks, during which she will have to cancel several planned trips.

Still, Merkel can get around on crutches. She plans to chair a cabinet meeting Wednesday, shining light on the other trait that she is best known for: an assiduous work ethic. 

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