Aspen Times Weekly: History in the Making
HOMETOWN HERO: Chris Klug Goes in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame
On the Saturday morning of his induction into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame,
Chris Klug and his daughter stood on the steeps of Aztec as dozens of skiers honored Bill Johnson and his 1984 Downhill Championship run.
It was quintessential Klug, for him to be there, honoring others on his epic day. Perhaps no other Olympic Medal winner (he took a snowboarding Bronze in Salt Lake City in the 2002 Games) has been as selfless in using his fame to help others. The recipient of a liver transplant, Klug has devoted his life to his family, his community and his quest to ensure that those in need of organ donations and those who donate organs can get together. Through his Chris Klug Foundation and Donor Dudes, he continues to spread awareness of the need for organ donors.
On Saturday night, he joined the 410 members of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the St. Regis Hotel.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN Olympians Lost with Aspen Ties
Over the Ski Heritage weekend there were two gatherings to say goodbye to a pair of Olympians who had a huge impact on Aspen and our community.
Stein Eriksen, 1927- 2015
If you want a big opening for a film, you cast Clooney or DiCaprio. In the 1950s and ‘60s, if you wanted to open a ski resort you called Stein Eriksen. From Aspen Highlands to Snowmass to Deer Valley, with stops in between at Sugarbush, Boyne Mountain and Heavenly Valley, Eriksen was in charge of ski schools that taught a generation of Americans to ski and helped the sport explode.
And that accomplishment may be third or fourth on the list of things he will be remembered for.
On April 8, a packed house converged below a setting sun in the Elk Camp Lodge on Snowmass to remember the golden-haired Norwegian God that was Stein Eriksen. No tears were shed, rather it was a raucous remembrance of a man who lived 88 years on skis and had few, if any, bad days.
Eriksen first came to Aspen for the 1950 FIS World Ski Championships. Just 21 years old, he was leading the luminaries of the sport in the slalom after the first run. His father, Marius, as the story was told at the gathering, knew that it may be his high point for the races. “Let’s open the Champagne now!” he cried, ready to celebrate at the halfway point of the competition. They did, and predictably Stein went on to finish third. But it was the first of many Champagne moments in his career.
In 1952 he won Gold in the giant slalom in his native Norway at the Olympic Games and, two years later, he swept three of the four Gold medals at the 1954 World Championships. His resume and good looks led to a lifetime of fame.
At the event there were films of Stein on the Johnny Carson show and others showing off his elegant reverse shoulder-style. Many in attendance remembered how he would put the instructors through their paces each year, Boda Bag filled with Aquavit in hand. Do the drill the right and a shot of the spirit would be the reward. And of course, everyone remembers the famed flips he would perform on Highlands, leaping high above the ski patrol shack that is now Cloud 9.
He remains immortal in the memories of those who saw him ski.
Bill Johnson, 1960-2016
“We are gathered here to remember Bill Johnson,” bellowed Tom Kelly of the USSA at the finish line of the America’s Downhill Course on April 8. Just as he made the pronouncement, a huge lighting bolt and an instantaneous clap of thunder rang out in the darkened sky. It was a glorious send-off for the man who dominated the 1984 World Cup and Olympic Downhill season.
The crowd had assembled to ski the America’s Downhill course, down Ruthie’s, then to Aztec and Spring Pitch, before coming to the finish line. At each stop Bill’s ashes were spread on the course where he had what may have been his finest moment in skiing. It was here that he came from behind to win the 1984 Aspen World Cup Downhill. Among those in attendance were his mother, donning the Olympic Gold that Johnson had won just weeks before in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (now Bosnia-Herzegovina).
Johnson, a Californian by birth, was the first racer from outside the Alps to win an Olympic downhill. He nipped silver medalist Peter Müller of Switzerland by 0.27 to win the gold medal at Bjelašnica in a time of 1:45.59. That same season he followed up his victory with downhill wins here in Aspen and in Whistler.
But as mercurial as his season was, his reputation as an irascible gunslinger dominated the narrative of his life. “Billy the Kid” they called him — and he took no prisoners, neither on skis nor in the interview room.
Johnson had an ill-fated attempt at a comeback at the beginning of this century, but it tragically ended at The Big Mountain near Whitefish, Montana, when he crashed hard while training for the 2001 U.S. Alpine Championships. The injuries from the fall lingered for the rest of his lifetime and, on Jan. 21 of this year, he passed away at a care facility in Gresham, Oregon.
While his death was sad, for those who skied the Downhill Course at Aspen, he will be forever remembered for both the shining moment of his ’84 triumph and the clap of thunder that shook down the sky at his memorial.
Rest in peace, Bill Johnson.
Last week Aspen took center stage for those who love ski history.
The International Skiing History Association and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame joined forces to hold a week-long celebration to commemorate the legacy of the sport.
Historic skiing contributors from Aspen were well represented as Edgar Stern, the developer of Starwood and Deer Valley, Utah, and 2002 Olympic medalist Chris Klug were among those inducted. The Hall of Fame is based in Ishpeming, Michigan, which is the birthplace of organized skiing in America; it is where, in 1905, the organizations predecessor, the National Ski Association of America, was founded.
For its part, the Vermont-based International Skiing History Association, publisher of Ski History Magazine, acknowledged those who have chronicled the sport’s history through film, broadcasting and writing.
Woody Creek resident Greg Lewis was this year’s honoree for Lifetime Achievement.
LIVING THE LIFE OF LEWIS: Broadcaster Greg Lewis Honored with Lifetime Achievement Award by The International Skiing History Association
In life there is perhaps no greater achievement than fulfilling the dreams of your youth. To pick your own playground, plot your own journey, ski your chosen mountain, and then to have the opportunity to tell the tale to inspire others to do the same.
Such is the life of Greg Lewis.
As the 2015-16 ski season neared its close this past week, members of The International Skiing History Association (ISHA) and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame came to Aspen to ski a little, party a lot, and honor those who have made significant contributions to the world of skiing and snowboarding. On April 7, in the ballroom of the Hotel Jerome, ISHA gave Greg Lewis its Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his 30-plus year career as a network and syndicated sports broadcaster, much of it covering the ski world.
“I remember in college watching Wide World of Sports and seeing Jim McKay doing, I don’t know what, covering cliff diving in Acapulco this week… the bobsled championships in St. Moritz the next week…and some other event in hallowed Madison Square Garden the next,” Lewis reminisced recently as he sat below a pair of posters from the 1984 Sarajevo Olympic Games in his Woody Creek home. “I thought, ‘What could be a better job?’ To think that it would actually happen and that it would be my career is mind-blowing.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Lewis became that guy, the virtual reincarnation of Jim McKay, traveling the globe as a host for NBC Sports covering both the biggest and the most obscure events in the world of sport. Over a broadcast career that saw him work as an on-air journalist for NBC, CBS, ESPN, HBO, Turner, and “an alphabet soup of others,” Lewis was on the air for the production of seven Olympic Games, myriad World Cup ski races, and hundreds of other events under the NBC SportsWorld banner.
If there was a sporting competition (the centenary of Irish Hurling or Swamp Buggy Racing in the Everglades) in play and a camera to cover it, Lewis was there. From running tracks to diving platforms, from polo fields to bobsled runs, his sets were the venues of the games. There he shared with viewers the stories of the athletes and their pursuit of victory.
But his brightest moments took place in the mountains, or as he puts it, from “St. Moritz to Nagano, from Sarajevo to Salt Lake, from Lillehammer to Lake Louise to Las Lenas in Argentina.” He was the pre-eminent broadcast voice of the most exciting period in the history of ski racing and the rise of the great American skiers as they conquered the sport. There was Phil Mahre, the overall World Cup champion for three straight seasons from 1981 through 1983, and Tamara McKinney, also a World Cup overall champion, in 1983. Two Americans … the best in the world, at the same time.
THE DREAM TAKES SHAPE IN ASPEN
Lewis’ journey, like all successful sojourns, had roots in both a solid base and serendipitous good fortune. His first break, while it may not have seemed that way at the time, was the development of a respiratory issue in his youth. It forced a family relocation from Midland, Texas, where his father worked in the oil industry, to Denver, Colorado, where the high mountain air soothed his lungs.
In 1955, as a third grader, the family came to Aspen to ski. It was his first trip to the place that he would come to regard as home for the majority of his life. Growing up in Denver, he spent weekends on the youth skiing circuit, going to events each season. It led him to Middlebury College in Vermont, where he was in for a rude awakening. “My freshman year was just awful,” he recalled. “Not only was it gray and cold, a far cry from the sunshine of the Rockies, and I was used to skiing Colorado snow, not East Coast ice.” But he persevered and eventually graduated.
Coming back to Colorado, Lewis thought he would ski bum for a season. With just a couple of weeks remaining in that first year he stumbled into a job as a patroller. It was a pretty rough and tumble crew at that time and he remembers an initiation rite. “After skiing the Dumps, two patrollers said ‘OK, now let’s go to Spar Gulch, you have to tuck and not wimp out.’ I took a look down and thought, OK I can do that. But then each linked an arm with me on either side. And off we went. It may have been the scariest thing I have ever done on a ski hill.”
Two years later the ski patrol at Aspen affiliated with the local teamsters union and went on strike. The result was the replacement of the entire patrol. It was another moment for Lewis’ lemons to turn to sweet lemonade.
THE BIG BREAKS
In the early 1970s, Bob Beattie, perhaps the most important figure in the creation of modern ski racing in America, moved his operations from Boulder to Aspen. He was looking for someone to do public relations for the World Pro Skiing Tour and a mutual associate from Middlebury (Beattie also attended and coached there in the 1950s) suggested he and Lewis talk.
“In 1972, I won a really big prize,” Lewis humbly remembers. “Bob Beattie, who has done more for ski racing than anyone else —ever — hired me to be the publicity director and PA announcer for World Pro Skiing. Spider Sabich and Jean-Claude Killy were the stars my first year. I announced hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of head-to-head races. And I began to learn what would be my craft.”
The experience lasted for four years and included amazing ups and some devastating downs, poignantly punctuated by the tragic the death of Sabich, who was fatally shot 40 years ago this past March, here in Aspen, by his lover, Claudine Longet.
The experiences with the World Pro Tour helped create relationships that led to his next big break. “In December, 1977, NBC Sports contacted me and asked if I’d like to commentate on a pro ski race they would broadcast on the network’s new weekly series called ‘SportsWorld,’” Lewis recalled. The network had just won the rights to the 1980 Olympics that were to take place in Moscow, Russia, and they embarked on producing programs that would cover the Olympic Sports in a new format.
While those Games did not appear on NBC due to the boycott of the Olympics under President Jimmy Carter, for Lewis it was the beginning of a glorious life on both television and in the mountains. Emmy Awards, great friendship and the opportunity to chronicle the great moments of the sporting events that mark the collective memories of our lives were the rewards. But there were sacrifices as well.
For 25 years with NBC, Lewis would travel 200-250 days each and every year, living out of a perpetually packed suitcase and surviving on airline peanuts as he accumulated an amazing 6 million miles of air travel. That is the equivalent of 250 times around the earth.
So consuming was his travel itinerary that during his acceptance speech at the ISHA event he told the assembled that when his oldest son was in third grade, he was summoned to a parent-teacher meeting. “The teacher said, ‘Mr. Lewis, I want you to look at the information sheet your son filled out at the start of the school year — specifically the section where he had to write his father’s occupation.’ I looked; it said, ‘My daddy works at the airport.’”
A PREPARED MIND
So why was Lewis so successful in his career as a broadcaster? Good looks, great breaks and a deep voice, some will tell you.
But for Lewis, it came as a result of living a homily uttered by his father, Yale. “Dad used to say, ‘chance favors a prepared mind,’” he recalled. “I always read and I became obsessed with learning to be a good writer. I believed that the story always depended on how well the scripts were written. I read everything I could about the craft.” Indeed, as an on-air personality his producers came to know that they could count on him to have just the right turn of the phrase, just the right word for any occasion. His preparation made their job easier.
“I also paid attention to learning how to deliver the lines I had written,” Lewis said. “The pacing, the pauses, the way you could enhance emotions by modulating your voice. But again it really all went back to my Dad saying: ‘Chance favors a prepared mind.’”
Aspen locals know all about Lewis’ skills. For years he was the voice of the town at ski races, banquets and parades. If you heard his familiar voice you knew you were at a big Aspen event.
This past week, as Lewis received his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Jerome, he “had the crowd in his hand” during his acceptance speech, according to Rick Moulton, ISHA Awards Committee Chairman. Over 130 were in attendance at the dinner, including Lewis’ 94-year-old mother and his son, Yale. As Lewis spoke, he displayed not just humility, but also the precise diction and the deft script writing that have been the hallmarks of his lifetime as a communicator. He closed his speech with the words:
“How lucky am I? How lucky are all of us here?”
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