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Sven Coomer lives with his wife Mary on a hillside just outside of Aspen, Colorado. From his property, the sharp ridgeline of Aspen Highlands, the top of Aspen Mountain, the rolling hills of Buttermilk, and even some distant trails of Snowmass up Brush Creek are all visible. It makes sense that a skier lives here, especially one being inducted in the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.
Sitting down at Sven’s kitchen table, it’s easy to get lost in stories. Stories about skiing in the 1960s, tales of friendships with professional racers throughout the years, and of course, a long winding narrative about the evolution of ski boot design and technology—where Coomer’s mark on the industry is most notable.
Born in Sydney, Australia in 1940, Sven Coomer represented his home country in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in the Modern Pentathlon—an impressive event combining five disciplines including fencing, freestyle swimming, a cross-country horse race, pistol shooting, and cross-country running. He went on to study engineering in Stockholm, where he picked up a pair of cross-country skis and boots at the age of 20 and used them to alpine ski for the first time.
“It was such an impression, I was totally smitten with the people and the environment,” he says, recalling those five days he spent learning to make turns in Åre, Sweden, where a lift operator watched him descend the mountain and gave him feedback to implement on his next lap.
Over the course of the next five years, Coomer threw himself into all things skiing. He worked a season as an instructor at Perisher Valley in Australia. He went to Val d’Isère and trained with the French Olympic team, establishing relationships with household names like Jean-Claude Killy. He fell in love with ski mountaineering, going on a 1,000km trek across the Alps in the winter of 1965.
In the late 1960s, Sven applied his passion for design and the biomechanics of feet with his own athletic experience for the brand Puma, helping them create a pair of spiked running cleats that were unlike anything else that had been made. “That was the moment that I got to see how high performance shoes were made and I saw there was a lot that could be applied to ski boots,” says Coomer.
At that time, Plastic ski boots were on the market, but they lacked the comfort leather boots had provided and weren’t always trusted due to how the material was impacted by temperature fluctuations. “What I heard from everyone was they wanted a plastic boot that felt like leather and I realized the secret was in the flexible leather sole,” says Coomer, who went on to design his first ski boot, the Nordica Sapporo, which was a shining example of how plastic laminated leather could be used. It’s descendant, the Olympic, had a removable leather-lined inner boot and a power strap (Sven would later invent the velcro power strap, which continues to save millions of skiers from a life of shin-bang).
“It was the first high-back boot with geometry that could fit everyone,” says Coomer, proudly cradling the original burgundy red Sapporo boot while he stands next to a display that showcases decades of ski boot designs.
From there came his Nordica Grand Prix design in 1972, which changed the game of ski boots entirely, fitting skiers comfortably, while still offering the fore and aft power that plastic boots promised to deliver. “His designs, especially the Nordica Grand Prix of 1972, were imitated by every factory that needed a successful boot for World Cup racing,” explains Seth Masia, President of the International Skiing History Association. “Versions are still in production 50 years later.”
Sven worked with Nordica for nine years, and then went on to design boots with other brands including Raichle (now FullTilt, soon to be K2), Koflach (now Atomic), and San Marco-Munari (now HEAD). Molds he created still influence the designs of boots like the Atomic Redster and Nordica Dobermann today. All along the way, his research and development process contributed to his success in innovation.
“What’s impressive about Sven is that the people who were testing his boots were incredible,” says Justin Koski, executive director at US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. “He had skiers like Stein Eriksen and Spider Sabich testing the boots he was making, and then would use that feedback to improve his designs.”
Coomer’s impact goes well beyond general ski boot design. He also helped innovate injection systems and became a master boot fitter, passionate about the role liners and footbeds play in skiers’ performance. As time went on however, Coomer became less enchanted by silicon or foam injection liners due to the inherent chemicals involved, which he felt were very toxic for the environment and people.
Now in his early 80s, Sven’s journey in designing boots, specifically an inner boot that plastic shells can accommodate, continues. In 1989, he started ZipFit, which still produces custom-fit liners with injection ports that allow skiers to add a plant-based cork material as needed overtime. “Cork is harvested from an oak tree,” explains Coomer. “It’s a natural material that is dampening, so it has rebound and it doesn’t compress like foam over time, it just spreads out.”
Sitting in his garage, surrounded by boots, inner-boots, and molds, Coomer is just as passionate as ever talking about the biomechanics of feet. “It’s all about creating more rigidity on the medial side of the foot, so a skier can apply pressure and hold an inside edge,” he says, smiling as he holds up one of his many boot liners.
“Sven Coomer is the man who made plastic boots comfortable and skiable, and revolutionized the way we ski,” reads the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame’s website. “His influence is universal and timeless—boots he designed 50 years ago set the pattern for all race boots right down to today.”
Coomer is a member of the 2021 induction class at the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. The ceremony for his induction will take place in Big Sky, Mont., in the spring of 2023.