Aspen ski legend Andy Mill looks back and prepares for Hall of Fame induction
For the Aspen Times Weekly
What: Aspen Hall of Fame Banquet
Where: Hotel Jerome
When: Sunday, April 10
How much: $150
More info: aspenhalloffame.org
THE CLASS OF 2022
Alongside Andy Mill, the Aspen Hall of Fame is inducting local theater legend Rita Hunter for her decades of work with Aspen Community Theatre and environmentalist Bruce Gordon for founding EcoFlight and leading outdoors and physical education in Aspen schools.
For the many people familiar with the name Andy Mill, it may seem like he’s led a charmed life. Only because he has. Sort of. But as everyone knows, good things tend to follow hard work and high energy. And, like everyone, “Millsy” has had his share of challenges.
When he’s inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame on April 10, it will be an acknowledgment of his character as much as his accomplishments, his determination as much as his diverse talents, and his devotion to the town where he grew up, and that helped mold him into who he has become.
Aspen native and former U.S. Ski Team and pro ski racer Dave Stapleton sums it up: “Having been his friend and competitor for many years, I’ve understood his ways as a person and someone that has given to his sport and way of life. Through his ski-racing career, accolades in the sport, and ‘Ski With Andy Mill’ TV show he helped bring attention to skiing in Aspen. He’s been friend to all and made skiing sexy.”
Mill’s accomplishments are impressive. As a junior ski racer in the late 1960s with the Aspen Valley Ski Club (as it was known then) he was one of the best in Colorado and the country. On the U.S. Ski Team he survived as the top American downhiller for most of a decade, from the early 1970s through the early ‘80s, and his 6th place finish in the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics downhill was the best American finish in the event in 24 years. For his efforts he was presented the Olympic Spirit medal, one of the rarest awards in the Games. When he retired from racing, he took up broadcasting – first with a ski show and then with a fishing show, where he became one of the top saltwater tarpon fly fishermen in the world, winning a record number of tournaments and guiding the likes of President George Herbert Walker Bush, with whom he became good friends.
His marriage to tennis legend Chris Evert in 1988 was one of those golden athlete unions that seemed almost inevitable. Two well-known, good-looking, socialite sports figures were a great match that landed them on the cover of People magazine twice. They had three boys as Andy continued to flourish on TV, working out of the family’s primary residence in Florida while still spending as much time as possible at their home in Aspen. And today he and his son Nicky are hosting the successful “Mill House” podcast.
As with almost any story, however, there is a lot more to it than these select highlights.
Mill was born in Colorado then the family moved to Wyoming before relocating to Aspen in the early 1960s when Andy was 8. He and his two sisters (Cindy and Kandy) and a brother (Randy) took to it and all the outdoor opportunities like fish to water. And after meeting Chuck Fothergill at the Country Store in Aspen, fly fishing quickly became one Andy’s biggest passions.
“My greatest memories as a kid in Aspen are those going to the river with my fly rod,” Mill said, “and my early ski years dying to get out of school and run gates on the slalom hill. The winters were one-dimensional with skiing. But Aspen summers were outrageous and still are. I will always have my home in Aspen because of the summers and the vast spectrum it has to offer. I fish, hike, golf, ride motorcycles, camp, hunt and see the town’s older families and friends that I love so much.”
The place that has had one of the most profound effects on his journey in this world.
“Growing up in Aspen gave me the essentials to pursue life in the most healthy way. I had many hobbies and sports that I loved,” he said, adding a bit that summarizes his ethos: “I worked hard at them because I had a great desire to do well at them.”
This included a stint as the quarterback of one of the Aspen Skiers winningest football teams.
“My most vivid football memory is when we played Limon in the state championships,” he recalled. “They kicked our ass so bad I still have headaches from that game. … It was a massacre!”
I met him when I moved to town in high school in 1967. He was a year younger and someone introduced us because we were both skiers and both from Wyoming. I knew from the first time I saw him run gates that he was always going to be formidable. Even in the days after he retired from racing, he could generate speed and power through a slalom or GS course like no one I’d ever seen. And he was one of those rare ski racers who also liked to free-ski and did that extremely well, too.
He went from high school directly to the U.S. Ski Team. By 1974, he was on the A squad and racing in St. Moritz at the World Championships, and in 1976 he was at the Innsbruck Olympics.
“My Olympic pursuit was extraordinary, traveling with my teammates around the world in a Volkswagen van was legendary,” he recalled. “The things we did off the slope were as exciting as those we did with helmets on. Marching in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics was always where my ski dreams went, representing my country. My result in Innsbruck was incredible since I was so injured.”
His sixth-place finish there was in a race primarily remembered for Franz Klammer’s crazed gold-medal-winning ride on the very edge all the way down a roller-coaster course that left commentators Bob Beattie and Frank Gifford audibly gasping. Right behind that story in popularity was America’s Andy Mill, with his foot and leg stuck in the snow to relieve pain and swelling in a badly bruised ankle until right before he stepped into the starting gate. He told me after he got back to town that he couldn’t feel that foot for most of the run, which was, to put it mildly, disconcerting.
Along with this gritty yet glamorous lifestyle of high-speed globetrotting came many demands and distractions.
“The name Aspen had an aura the size of Texas,” Mill said of those heady times. “Along with that was the sexual revolution, the post-Vietnam anarchy, and all its recklessness was centered in downtown Aspen. I wanted it all, which was a tough juggling act for an achieving athlete.”
As he told me for an Aspen Magazine story in January of 1983: “You had to do a lot of changing and growing up, all of it out on the road. After the Olympics I was very happy for a while but there was a lot of love/hate and anarchy, too. I partied really hard and got very physically and mentally run down.”
He contracted a mysterious virus at one point that landed him in the Aspen Valley Hospital for two months. And his dirt biking did as much if not more damage to his body – and especially his knees – than his ski racing. At one point I remember him telling me he had over an inch-and-a-half of play in one knee joint, which he proceeded to demonstrate for me.
After struggling hard throughout the 1979-80 season to overcome feuds with coaches and inconsistent performances and remain on the U.S. team, he won a race at the U.S. National Championships by over a second and vaulted back into the top seed in the world. In the early 1980-81 season, he placed 4th at Val Gardena, the best American men’s World Cup downhill result in 12 years. At St. Moritz he broke the course record in training.
“I was always the guy standing around the finish, shaking everyone’s hand and congratulating them,” he said in 1983. “I was a great loser but I wanted to win and it was just getting to be my time. I didn’t want the fame or the money, I just wanted to be the best downhill racer in the world.”
Then came a training run crash in the finish area at the Lauberhorn in Wengen.
Hew came off the last big jump above the finish way too fast and went 150 feet. “His momentum ended abruptly when he crashed into the fence,” Peter Miller reported in Ski magazine. “The cartilage gave way between the vertebrae, which flipped open like a shucked oyster and exposed the gray-white fiber of the spinal column.” With a slight twist or change of position, “Mill would have died or become, in the finish area, a paraplegic.”
This traumatizing accident brought an abrupt end to his ski racing career and 20 years of dreams, leaving him, as he told me then, “high and dry with a lot of anxiety and feeling of frustration.” When an injury ends a ski racer’s career, there’s no farewell tour or ceremony. It was 1982 and suddenly he was just back at home after 12 years traveling the world, in shock and uncertain.
“I sacrificed a number of school years and my body for a dream,” he continued. “Was it an illusion? When you’re in the middle of it, injuries are a tease. You’re 6th in the Olympics and you’re thinking, ‘I can do it.’ Then you have a knee operation and you say ‘F-k it, I can still do it. I can win a gold medal, I’ve got a chance to be the best skier in the world.’”
IN THE BOOTH & BOAT
Even hugely successful ski racers rarely have shelf lives past the age of 35, making it a good idea to have plans for second careers just in case you don’t have a trophy case full of globes and gold medals and a fat bank account. Mill went into broadcasting and covered two Olympics and two World Championships.
“I had my own ski show and did everything I could to get ahead, and in the middle of it met Chrissie.” That’s when he found what in retrospect he says, “was a thousand times more” than what he’d had with ski racing.
“My life with Chrissie was just amazing!”
Next, he embarked on his most successful sport of all.
He began guest appearances on the new Outdoor Life channel in 1996 and was given his own show starting in 2001. “I produced and hosted fishing shows entitled ‘Sportsman’s Journal with Andy Mill.’ Over 7 years we taped 81 fishing shows on the far sides of the earth. President Bush 41 appeared on the show. Fishing became my life. The show opened this world for me and I eventually dedicated 15 years to becoming the best tournament tarpon fisherman.”
“I won more tarpon fly invitational tourneys than anyone, which was 12. Five of those wins were in the Gold Cup Tournament, which is the most prestigious in fly fishing. Also, I was the first of only three people to win a tarpon, permit, and bonefish tournament. My total wins for the big invitationals is 14.”
He also wrote a 500-page book, “A Passion for Tarpon,” for which Bush wrote the introduction. He has endorsement contracts with a boat company, sunglasses, clothing, fly rods and reels, and sponsorships for the “Mill House” podcast, which Andy and Nicky launched two years ago and now reaches more than 100 countries.
“It was Nicky’s brainchild,” he explained. “Our goal is to save the stories from legends and Hall of Fame fishermen.”
In addition, he has a number of speaking engagements every year and sits on an advisory board to the American Museum of Fly Fishing, and is a trustee to the International Game Fish Association.
“My life has been incredibly blessed,” he acknowledges. “I’ve met six presidents, the Pope, prime ministers, indigenous tribesmen who survive with bows and arrows, Inuits of the north. The spectrum of people I’ve met and things I’ve done, places I’ve gone, would’ve been beyond my imagination as a young man. I am so grateful!”
His and Chrissie’s other sons are Alex, 29, and Colton, 25, with Nicky in the middle at 27. As many know, their marriage ended when Chrissie left for Andy’s good friend Greg Norman and a marriage that lasted less than two years. She has since publicly regretted that decision more than once.
“It was really heartbreaking when my family broke up because it was the best in every way,” says Mill. “Alex has found his way in the gym and crossfit. Colton is an amazing spirit that is still trying to find his footing with all the things he loves. And Nicky found his love with everything I showed him. His ability in nature is world class.”
Ultimately, though things haven’t always worked out perfectly, “I have no regrets. I am who I am because of the way things went down. Growth and success is the result of succeeding failure. No one is immune from it, that’s life. I cherish all the people I’ve met, my children and the wonderful love in my life, Brooke Toppel. She came into my arms when I’d lost all hope for everlasting love.”
His youngest sister Cindy is well, retired, and living in St. George, Utah. Kandy is living in Dallas and working as a flight attendant. Randy just finished an 18-month battle with cancer and “is holding well at the moment,” says Andy.
Today, this man who first made a name for himself charging down some of the planet’s most fearsome downhills says, “The most exciting thing I do is bow hunt for elk. I love being in the woods with Nicky and successfully harvesting a great animal. Becoming one with nature is my greatest joy whether its on the ocean or in the high country. Hunting is incredibly hard in the Aspen valley because the walls are so steep and there are so few animals. The valley’s become too crowded and that has pushed the biomass over the upper edges.”
One of the big recognitions he has received for his ski- racing career was induction into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 1994. And now the Aspen Hall of Fame induction come as testimony to both his skiing and his life beyond it.
Roch Cup winner Mark Tache, who grew up in Aspen and followed in Andy’s footsteps as a U.S. Ski Team racer, calls the Aspen Hall of Fame induction “long overdue.”
“He has represented Aspen on the world stage through his long, storied career, from racing on the World Cup through until today,” Tache said. “And he should be credited for paving the way for the next generations of Aspen ski racers, showing us all that it was possible to reach the level he did coming out of this little mining town!”
As I was wrapping this up, Millsy checked in with a thought, declaring “we lived the greatest generation of Aspen!”
We had been discussing our disappointment with some of the current conditions – over-populated and massively wealthy – in town.
“It started getting sold out a while ago, culminating with the nightmare we see today,” he said. “Everyone wants a slice of heaven. Even though I live here and would never leave, I miss Aspen, I saw the best we ever had!”
That noted, he said that most of all he was extremely honored and happy to join the Hall of Fame: “I’m blown away by this induction. I’ve had some big dreams in my life, but this induction is beyond dreams; it’s something that isn’t a goal for an inductee, it’s a gift bestowed onto someone.” And he said it was extra special because it isn’t a sports related achievement, it’s a lifetime one.
Jay Cowan’s most recent book is “Scandal Aspen: The Rich and Famous Run Amok in Paradise.“