Günter's Great Escape

"In power and youth sport handling of enemy activity is particularly focus on the following priorities... Plans, intentions and actions of human beings (especially poaching) and the illegal departure from the GDR...  especially taking advantage of missions abroad." - Released STASI file "Instructions 4/71 on the political and operational work in the field of physical culture and sport", March 12, 1971

Born May 21, 1948 in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), Günter Werner Siegfried Zöller took to the ice as a youngster, showed promise and soon found himself training under the indomitable Jutta Müller. He won his first medal at the National Championships of the German Democratic Republic in 1963 and was sent to the European Figure Skating Championships in Budapest, where he made a forgettable debut, finishing nineteenth of the twenty one men competing. By the next season, the teenager was already showing signs of improvement.

Photo courtesy German Federal Archives

Günter won his first international medal at the Pokal der Blauen Schwerter competition in 1964, finishing third behind France's Robert Dureville and future Olympic Gold Medallist Ondrej Nepela. In 1965, he won his first of six national titles and competed in his first of five World Championships in Colorado Springs. Flying under the radar, he slowly inched his way up in the standings in the European and World Championships in the late sixties. By 1970, he handily won a pair of bronze medals at the European and World Championships and established himself as a bona fide contender.

Photos courtesy German Federal Archives

Then everything changed. An injury forced Günter to miss the 1971 season. While working as an auto mechanic, he began to question his future in the sport and the political regime of the country he lived in. Two of his former competitors, Bodo Bockenauer and Ralph Borghardt, had defected in the mid-sixties and the possibility of getting out of dodge began to creep into his mind. In 1972, he returned to the ice purposefully. His plan? Not to win another medal but to get out of East Germany once and for all. After winning his sixth National title, Zöller headed to Gothenburg, Sweden for the 1972 European Championships. Not long after he arrived, he skipped his training session and called a cab from his hotel. An Associated Press article from January 11, 1972 explained, "He ordered it to the West German Consulate, where he asked for and was granted an Alien's passport. Before boarding a ferry for Kiel in West Germany, he said his motives for the defection were political. He said he would try a career as a trainer in Germany." His simple but effective plan turned out to not be as foolproof as he thought. Before he boarded the ferry, reporters from the tabloid "Bild-Zeitung" met and interviewed him for a feature series on his escape. One of them, a journalist named Manfred Hönel, turned out to actually be a wolf in sheep's clothing - a STASI informant - and fed back every word to the East German government.

Photo courtesy German Federal Archives

Ultimately, The Socialist Unity Party of Germany launched a vicious campaign in the East German press decrying Günter as a traitor. The "Deutsches Sport Echo" - which released STASI files prove was an arm of the party - called it "treason". He later said, "My coach, of course, was affected, too, when her student left the German Democratic Republic. Her daughter [Gaby Seyfert] then called me a traitor in the newspapers." Propaganda, smear campaign - whatever you like to call it - the East German men's champion found safety and success in the West. He started coaching immediately in Ludwigshafen and the next year, crossed the Rhine and established himself as a a trainer in Mannheim. Among his students were Claudia Leistner, Manuela Ruben, Stefan Pfrengle and Petra Ernert.

Photo courtesy German Federal Archives

Günter's West German students (particularly Leistner and Ruben) ended up being highly successful on the world stage but on the same level of awkward as running into your ex while you're on a date with your new paramour, he was constantly snubbed by East German athletes and officials at international competitions. In "Der Spiegel", judge Eugen Romminger asserted that Günter left his West German students to work "for 150,000 marks as a state coach to Italy". This arrangement lasted for two years, and then he returned to Mannheim, where he remains a coach to this day.

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