Legends & Legacies: Winter Olympics kick-started Aspen skiing
The Winter Olympics opened this week, and Aspen is tuned in as the Games are the Super Bowl for ski towns. We are approaching a century of winter Olympics as the first, in Chamonix, France, was in 1924. It is worth chronicling the importance of the Olympics, especially 1936, had on the beginnings of skiing in Aspen.
Skiing was not one of the sports in the 1924 Olympics, nor in the 1928 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The major events were speed and figure skating, Nordic skiing, bobsled, ski jumping and hockey.
Aspen’s connection to the Olympics, even though there were no Alpine skiing events, begins in 1928. Billy Fiske, one of the founding partners of the Highland Bavarian group that started Aspen’s skiing, was on the 1928 American bobsled team. He was the driver of the five-man team at the age of only 16. They won the gold and another American team took the silver. Norwegian actress Sonja Henie was the star of the 1928 Olympics dazzling the crowds with her figure skating, winning the gold medal. She was only 15, the youngest medalist for almost 80 years. But even more interesting is that she competed at age 11 in the 1924 Olympics.
Fiske made the team again in 1932 and was the driver again, but the bobsled team size had been reduced to four. Having already won a gold for America, he was chosen to lead the U.S. team in the opening ceremonies as the flag bearer, a great honor as the Olympics in 1928 were held at Lake Placid, New York. He and the team capped it off with another gold medal. There were no Alpine skiing events, but women’s speed skating, sled-dog racing and curling were introduced as demonstration events. Henie starred again, winning her second gold.
The significance of the Olympics in relation to Fiske and Aspen is that Fiske was able to visit the Alps. When he got interested in skiing and wanted to start a ski resort in America, he searched for a place that would match what he had seen in St. Moritz. He was introduced to Aspen by local Tom Flynn, who while engaged in a conversation with Fiske in Los Angeles — where Fiske claimed there wasn’t a place in America like the Alps — Flynn told him about Aspen, and soon after Fiske came to see for himself.
Another Olympics and Aspen connection was the 1936 Gaarmisch-Partenkirchen Winter Olympics. Sonja Henie won her third straight gold medal, but Alpine skiing, both men’s and women’s, was added. For that Olympics there was a downhill and a slalom, the times were added together, and medal winners won having the best combined times. The new event was a major focus, and in America it stimulated an interest in the sport. There were few skiers in America in 1936, but because the Olympics had both men’s and women’s, the younger generation discovered the sport was something men and women could do together. That surge in interest was perfectly timed for Fiske and his partners. They came to Aspen in 1936 and opened their lodge and Little Annie slopes just before the Olympics.
There would not have been an Aspen Skiing Co. without Freidl Pfeifer. He was a famous Austrian slalom racer and coach. He coached the 1936 American Women’s Olympic Team that trained in Austria. Later, when Nazis took over, he escaped and ended up at Sun Valley where he became the ski school director, was asked again to coach the women’s team, and he guided the building of the first lifts. He came to Aspen to ski during the war while in the Tenth Mountain Division, and after the war he decided to create something in Aspen like what there was already in Sun Valley. He pitched the ski club with his idea of expanding their operation in 1945 with the goal of building lifts. They approved and awarded him with a contract to run their facilities. He immediately arranged for an estimate to build lifts and the Aspen Skiing Co. was born.
The American skier who did the best in that first Olympics with Alpine events (1936) was Dick Durrance. Durrance was initiated into winter sports through living in France beginning in 1924. Durrance placed 10th. In 1941 he came to Aspen when it hosted the 1941 Nationals where he placed second. The year after the opening of the Aspen Skiing Co., Durrance was named general manager, in part because he planned to gain more attention for Aspen through hosting more ski races, leading to Aspen hosting the 1950 FIS, Aspen’s first international race.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.